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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Dr. Timothy Leary

The ACLU censored my previous comment here so I will repeat it. I said that Mr. Smith could always appeal the courts decision. Appeal, you know, like a banana peal.

Anonymous

OK here's my 2 cents it's not new nor is it unfair. when something happens during the commission of a crime you are responsible. whether your the one doing the act or just playing look out.An old man has a heart attack cause you think it's funny to say robbery in a crowded bank his life belongs to you. Unfortunately for this young man murder (death during the commission of a crime) is normally automatically waved up to adult i'm not saying i don't feel for him i do hope someway he gets a break and second chance but what i don't see is anything wrong with what I've read. Plea bargains are meant to be a sort of incentive if your willing to save the state the time and cost of a trial we'll offer this sentence recommendation. At the end of the day it's the judges discretion you need to be concerned with he can reject a plea or flat out disagree with the prosecutors sentence recommendation and alter it.
Going to trial is a roll of the dice you can either win big (ie OJ) or loose heavy but every one is aware before they try . Carrot Or Stick!

Anonymous

So laughing and not apologizing gets you 65 years when you were only 15 when you burglarized a home???!!! Really?
Would you wish that on your own son, nephew or brother? Probably not.
This is reprehensible, to say the least. Something must be done. We can't let these young boys rot in a hellhouse that will for sure, turn them into depraved criminals. When are we going to learn??? What does it take for us to grasp that this system is not working. It's corrupt, wicked, racist, cruel and inhuman. What justice is sending these kids to jail to learn to become professional criminals.
Aren't the jails already disproportionately overrun with Black men? Do you even have beds for these boys or will they have to grab a piece floor??? Additionally, where are you putting them?? In with hardened men, old enough to be their fathers, so they can be sexually used and abused?? Is that part of the punishment too???

God help you MR. Prosecutor and Judge. You will stand before God and answer for this. You both know in your heart it's not right. The punishment is overkill and you know it. What are these kids to you. Just numbers?? Dollar signs?? What??? Ask yourself if you want your son to suffer this heinous injustice? Look yourself in the mirror. Take a good look because GOD is watching too. You had those boys while lives in your hand and you chose the harshest punishment knowing these are just kids! Kids!!! Just like you both were kids once and did stupid things. You just didn't get caught.
Have you forgot about the kid in Texas that got PROBATION for killing four people WHILE DRIVING DRUNK??? Have you??

He was the DIRECT CAUSE OF of DEATH for 4 people!! However, because he was white and rich, he was spared ANY JAIL TIME??

What's wrong with this picture sir??? Judge you are charged to make righteous judgements. Have you. Examine yourself sir before God does. God holds you responsible first. You sit in a high position. Appointed by God. Have you forgotten your oath of office. FIX THIS SIR.
DO NOT LET THE SYSTEM SWALLOW THESE BOYS INTO A HELLISH SYSTEM. GIVE THEM A CHANCE TO LIVE PLEASE. I'M BEGGING YOU.
YOU DON'T KNOW ME AND I DON'T KNOW YOU BUT I KNOW A HOLY GOD WHO SEES ALL.
THIS DECISION COULD BE A TURNING POINT IN BOTH YOUR CAREERS. YOU MAY NOT LIKE YOUR FUTURE IF YOU DON'T HEED THE VOICE OF GOD. YOU AND I KNOW HE'S BEEN TALKING TO YOU. YOU'VE BEEN IGNORING HIM. THIS IS NOT ANY OLD CASE. THIS IS NOT YOUR EVERY DAY CASE. BELIEVE ME. GOD IS PAYING SPECIAL ATTENTION TO THIS CASE. HE'S SICK OF THE CALLOUS INJUSTICE. YOUR HEARTS ARE HARD. NOT FLESH. STONE. BUT GOD CAN FIX THAT. AND HE WILL. MARK MY WORDS. IF YOU DON'T DO SOMETHING TO FIX THIS SITUATION PROMPTLY, GOD WILL INTERVENE. YOU DON'T WANT THAT. TRUST ME.
Blessings on you both.

Anonymous

I would not wish that on my child AND I certainly wouldn't wish for her to turn into the sort of person that's ok with burglarizing houses and hanging around with armed criminals. That's why I try to instill values on her and point out to her that she has many options in life. The real tragedy is that 15 year old kids are this messed up to begin with.

Anonymous

A 15 year old boy does not deserve to spend decades in prison for burglary. What's so hard to understand?

Anonymous

He didn't deserve the type of childhood that led to burglarizing houses with armed crminals, either.

Anonymous

The job of the prosecutor IS NOT to "advance justice. It is the job of the prosecutor to prove guilt beyong a reasonable doubt. It is the job of the Defense attorney to establish reasonable doubt or take other legal avenues to get the best possible outcome for the accused. It is the job of the judge (and or jury) to listen to both sides and "advance justice".

Anonymous

I think it's clear that the adversarial nature of our current court system does not work to discover the truth or administer proper justice. The next reasonable president and congress needs to enact reforms to the justice system.

Anonymous

Racism runs very deep in this country. It must be exposed and rooted out relentlessly for as long as it takes, so we can live in a just society with equality for all.

Dr. Timothy Leary

Burglary runs very deep in this country. It must be exposed and rooted out relentlessly for as long as it takes, so we can live in a just society with equality for all.

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