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Why 15-Year-Old Travion Blount Got More Than 6 Life Sentences for a Crime in Which No One Was Hurt
Posted on Jan 16, 2014
Virginia is one of a handful of states that still allows minors to be sentenced to life in prison without parole. The state justifies this in spite of the Supreme Court rulings, because it has a policy called “geriatric release,” which means that an inmate who has served at least 10 years of his or her sentence and is 60 years of age can apply for early release. A member of Virginia’s parole board told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the policy “was really focused on people who were going to get very long sentences at a young age so they would have some opportunity to be released.”
Until his sentence was reduced to 40 years over the weekend, Blount’s only hope was for a possible release at the age of 60 under the geriatric release program. But even that would have been highly unlikely given that only 15 people have ever succeeded in being approved for release.
On the other hand, if Blount had accepted the original plea deal offered to him, it is likely he would have been halfway through serving his sentence by now. But, because he chose to go to trial, against the advice of his own attorneys and the prosecutor and judge, he found himself with a sentence so extreme as to defy all logic and common sense.
But Blount, like all Americans charged with crimes, has a fundamental right to a fair trial. “Unfortunately,” lamented Schindler, “the system is set up in such a way that it pushes most people to accept plea bargains. Over 90 percent of the cases in criminal courts throughout the country are resolved through a plea bargain unless they’re dismissed. If cases went to trial in significant numbers, the system would literally shut down.”
Instead of being a poor black kid, what if Blount had been white and wealthy? What if, instead of committing armed robbery, he had killed four people? A recent case involving a white, wealthy 16-year-old in Texas who killed four people while driving drunk attracted a brief bout of media coverage for the defense’s successful use of a dubious mental affliction called “affluenza.” This essentially means that the young man’s wealth clouded his understanding of the consequences of his actions to such an extent that he was not responsible for his crime. The juvenile court that tried him thereby privileged him for being privileged, and sentenced him to 10 years’ probation and private therapy costing his parents nearly half a million dollars.
Schindler considered it quite appropriate to bring up the double standards of race and class, saying, “In our justice system generally, those who are subject to these really draconian penalties, such as life sentences or very long sentences for drug offenses, disproportionately are poor people of color, African-American primarily, and Latino.” He went further, noting, “I think that there’s a serious question about whether any of these sentences and penalties would be in place if they disproportionately impacted white people.”
But he was reluctant to conclude that the rich white Texas teen got off too lightly, saying, “I think that what should happen is that in all cases we should take an individual look at what is in the best interest of a young person and their capacity to change.”
Schindler is hopeful that Terry McAuliffe, Virginia’s new Democratic governor, could still win a pardon for Blount or a further reduction of his sentence, pointing out that he’d like to see the decision made “based on the ability of Travion to change.” He added, “I think that’s already seen to be happening. He is—from what I understand—a more mature, more thoughtful person now, and he understands what he did. He takes responsibility for his actions, but understandably feels like this [sentence] is just way too disproportionate.”
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