The Lakeith Smith Case Demonstrates the System’s Brokenness

One night in 2015, several teenagers got together and burglarized two homes in Millbrook, Alabama. After being confronted by police, one of the teenagers, A’Donte Washington, engaged in a shootout with an officer and was killed during the gunfire. Lakeith Smith, another one of the teenagers, participated in the burglary. He did not have a gun and did not shoot at anyone, yet he was charged with the death of his friend.

After rejecting a plea offer for 25 years and going to trial, he received 30 years for felony murder, a 15-year sentence for burglary, and two 10-year sentences for theft. In total, Smith was sentenced to 65 years in prison. He was 15 years old.

The travesty in Smith’s case is at the intersection of a number of different issues raised by criminal justice reformers.

Prosecutors make choices that can mean the difference between a few years or a life in prison.

Prosecutors are among the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system. And while prosecutorial discretion can be wielded for good, Smith’s case illustrates the problems with prosecutors abusing that discretion. Prosecutors have the power to decide which crimes to charge, and in this case, prosecutors did not have to charge Smith with felony murder.

Prosecutors also have discretion to charge people as juveniles or to transfer them to the adult system. Courts have long accepted that juveniles can lack impulse control, which is reflected in the decision of the teenagers to participate in a burglary. However, courts have also recognized the greater likelihood of rehabilitation of juveniles.

Since Smith was under 16 when the burglary was committed, the case could have been handled in the juvenile justice system where there is greater consideration given to alternatives to incarceration and the ability to be rehabilitated. However, the prosecutor decided to prosecute Smith as an adult. And, unfortunately, under Alabama law, once a person is transferred to adult court, that person is permanently outside of juvenile court jurisdiction.

These discretionary decisions have detrimental consequences. Transferring Smith to the adult system foreclosed his eligibility for diversionary programs that would have kept him out of prison. Charging Smith with felony murder ensures that he will spend the majority of his life — if not all of it — in prison, foregoing any chance of meaningful rehabilitation.

The loss of one teenager is tragic enough, but the prosecutor's decisions in charging and sentencing Smith — who did not possess a gun and never shot at police — exacerbates this loss by throwing his life away, too. It is not justice when the punishment so clearly does not fit the crime.

People should not be punished for using their right to a trial by jury.

It is no secret that sentences after trial are much harsher than those given to people who accept plea bargains. It is often called a “trial tax” or “trial penalty” --- a reference to criminal defendants receiving a more severe sentence because they decided to exercise their constitutional right to a trial and reject the prosecution’s plea agreement.

Smith exercised his right to a trial, and his lack of success should not lead to a longer sentence. Rather, the sentence should be in line with what was offered as a plea bargain and should be appropriate for the crime. A sentencing scheme that imposes a trial tax is contrary fundamental fairness, due process, and an impartial justice system.

Prosecutors are crucial for the administration of justice, and we need to hold them accountable for their actions.

The job of the prosecutor is to advance justice, yet all too often they have focused only on punishment. This focus fuels our state’s mass incarceration crisis and disproportionately affects people of color and people with fewer resources.

However, because these prosecutors are elected they are accountable to the voters of Alabama. Ask your district attorney and any candidates running for the position where they stand on criminal justice reform.

Where do they stand on the prosecution of juveniles as adults? What are their positions on police accountability and oversight? Have they encouraged participation in diversionary programs for people accused of crimes? Do they believe that people can be rehabilitated?

Last year, the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice announced a new, multi-year initiative to make sure that prosecutors are held accountable to their communities. A recent ACLU national poll found that 95 percent of respondents support the idea that a prosecutor engaged in misconduct should be held accountable.

A district attorney who is committed to criminal justice reform, decreasing reliance on incarceration, and using the power of the office for the fair and smart administration of justice can go a long way to making sure that a case like Smith’s never happens in Alabama again.

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siesmann

WHat a shameful travesty . Neo-Nazism of American racism will never give equivalent justice to Blacks.

Dr. Timothy Leary

They would get equal justice if they started behaving themselves.

BronTina Smith

LaKeith Smith is my son. I do not condone what my son did & I do think he should be punished, but not to 25-65 years!!!

Anonymous

Did you raise him right? Why is he breaking into houses? And then when the judge gave him every opportunity to apologize, he refused and laughed it off. I'm that you have to go through this, but I'm not sorry for your son. He is getting what he deserves

Victoria

I'm sorry for the sentence your son got. It does not seem just at all.

Anonymous

I am praying for you and Lakeith. I saw this news article and I immediately wrote the President and Alabama legislators. Please don’t give up and fight for your Lakeith. Keep the faith.

A child should not be punished for a lifetime when instead he can spend that lifetime being a functioning and contributing member of society. How do we benefit from putting a child in prison for his life? Rehab works. Second chances work. Who hasn’t needed a second chance? Throw the first stone.

How can we do better for our youth? It seems that people rush to judgement so quickly. What can be done for Lakeith and other youth in this situation? If you are reading this, how can you make an impact and change things? If someone wants to spend energy judging, please instead take that energy and change it into a positive act- go into your local community and volunteer or mentor a child. Each of us can do so much good.

Ms. Smith- I am a mother and I can’t imagine your heartbreak. Many prayers and much love.

Anonymous

you think a 15 year old deserves 65 years in jail for not apologizing? Kids make mistakes all the time, not always a reflection of the parent. I'm not saying what they did was right, it's wrong. But the system failed him in many ways, the punishment doesn't match the crimes

Alan Bunker

I don't think he deserves anything like 25-65 years. I the family had more money, they would have a fancy lawyer and LaKeith wouldn't get more than 5 or 10 years. And the lawyer would probably know the judge and possibly play golf with him on the weekends. That can help a lot with your case. Justice depends a lot on your race and on how much money you have. Anyone who says otherwise is full of crap.

I hope the ACLU helps out your family, Ms. Smith.

Anonymous

I read a few more sources to get a better feel for why he got such a long punishment and it looks like you raised a little sociopath. His best friend is dead, he's looking!ing at a 65 year sentence, he hurt 2households of people who will no longer feel safe in their homes, it sounds like he really hurt his grandfather, yet he was laughing and flippant throughout the entire trial. Frankly, I,m glad he'll be an old man when he gets out of jail. People like your son are scary and do a lot of damage.

Anonymous

@Anonymous who is saying he deserves this;
Hey, you know who else I've met who's an asshole? Literally every fifteen year old ever. People are cocky little shits at that age. Their brains aren't fully developed yet. I was a sociopath at that age and it wasn't until I was near 20 that I finally felt remorse for things I'd done in the past. The law of trying adults vs children ACCOUNTS FOR THIS. By throwing this not-fully-grown person in jail for the rest of his life, we're damning him to never becoming a better person. And when he finally gets out? Everything he knows will have been learned from prison life. In what fashion is this supposed to benefit society?

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