15-Year-Old Gets Six Life Sentences?

At gunpoint, two 18-year-olds and a 15-year-old robbed a dozen other teenagers at a house party, taking money, phones, and marijuana. No shots were fired, but one of the 18-year-olds struck someone with the butt of his gun.

The crime is unquestionably serious. Witnessing a robbery can cause severe psychological trauma, especially for people younger than 18. For their offense, the two older boys accepted serious prison sentences of 10 and 13 years in exchange for pleading guilty.

But the younger boy, Travion Blount, declined to plead guilty and turned down the prosecution's offer of 18 years in prison. He went to trial, was found guilty, and received a mandatory 118 years in prison, without parole, for 24 firearm counts—each time Travion or his codefendants held a gun to one of the 12 people, the entire group committed two felonies with a firearm: armed robbery and abduction. On top of that, he received six life sentences. His only chance to exit prison alive is through geriatric release at age 60, which is almost never granted. He will most likely die behind bars.

Other than execution, sentencing someone to be behind bars until they die is our most severe punishment, one that we mostly reserve for people who commit the most egregious murders. In fact, many murderers serve much shorter sentences than Travion's: the average murder/non-negligible manslaughter sentence in the U.S. is 20 years in prison. Travion received the same sentence as the 17-year-old involved in the D.C. sniper killings. Should a 15-year-old who didn't physically injure anyone receive such an extreme sentence?

Certainly, what should happen to Travion is a difficult question. Yes, he is responsible for committing an offense that deserves serious punishment. But that does not mean he deserves whatever punishment he receives. We share responsibility for his fate. Sentencing laws do not simply appear on the books. Lawmakers, who represent us, put them there. And we are responsible for making sure these sentences are not needlessly cruel and wasteful. Do-the-crime-do-the-time platitudes don't absolve us of that responsibility.

Intuitively, we understand that punishments can be disproportionate. This is clear at extremes such as stoning women convicted of adultery, cutting off the hands of thieves, or executing people convicted of sorcery. Travion's punishment is certainly less barbaric than stoning, but it is still excessive. Life sentences should be reserved for the gravest offenses; Travion's crime, though terrible, is not among them. And what kind of system have we created when the only way to avoid such an extreme sentence is to waive our Constitutional right to trial?

We cannot simply ignore our extreme sentencing problem. The mandatory minimum sentences that applied in Travion's case are part of a larger picture: for the last four decades, this country has excessively and persistently ratcheted up the number of people behind bars and the length of the terms they're serving, needlessly ruining millions of lives and costing taxpayers billions. Our country's obsession with extreme sentencing has swept in too many people, and it's time to undo some of this damage.

Kids like Travion do not need to die behind bars. We can choose instead not to allow armed robbery to result in a life sentence if no physical injury occurs. We can choose instead not to allow 24 mandatory terms to stack consecutively if they occur in the course of overlapping events. We can choose instead to hold Travion accountable for the significant harms he has caused without treating him with the same severity as those guilty of the most heinous wrongs. We can, and we should.

You can read more about the case and see a step-by-step account of Travion's crime at the Virginian-Pilot's coverage.

For more on extreme sentencing, check out the ACLU's new report A Living Death: Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses.

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Anonymous

the court system "needs" to do this to enforce the terror that ensures almost everyone will accept the plea bargains offered to them, guilty or not. I don't think this would be right to do to an adult either. the issue doesn't seem, to me, to be so much about children and incarceration as it is about vindictive sentencing used against a citizen who actually want's to utilize his or her civil rights in a trial process and turns down a plea bargain.

Anonymous

How is this possible? Graha v. Florida declared life sentences for non-homicide to be cruel and unusual.

Anonymous

25 yrs should be good enough....this is ridiculous.

Jennifer Brauer

We don't let a fifteen year old sign a contract, join the military, get married, have a credit card or drive a car all because our experience and science has demonstrated he lacks the capacity to fully understand and be responsible for his actions. If he has no capacity for his own civil decisions he can't possibly be able to fairly (read fourteenth amendment) make a decision about plea bargaining even with the advise of council. Having a lawyer does not make up for this lack of adult capacity even though maybe it's supposed to. And the excessive prison time also reflects a failure for him to have equal protection under the laws, plus it's cruel and unusual for a kid, plus in all likelihood he was influenced and corrupted by the older robbers. How bout jail till 21 and five years of community service and parole.

Anonymous

Travion sentence is just and fair. He was a menance to society and he deserved what he got. Robbing people and carrying guns? What about the victims of the crime? What about their pain? They were innocent. He was not... Do the crime. Do the time. He wasnt thinking about that when he was robbing people.

Isa Kocher

only the lowest, least civilized, cruelest societies condemn children to prison. it is unconscionable. it is not possible for a 15 year old to know what is wrong and right reliably. the government that condemns children to death or to life imprisonment is not human.

Anonymous

Let me guess. The boys were black and poor. White kids don't get that kind of sentence for that kind of crime. We need to put the former secessionist states back under a northern military government until the present generation of racists has died out.

Anonymous

Crimes should fit the punishment. It seems these days everything is out of control! Prison is not always the answer.

Daveinvegas

The kid did role the all-or-nothing dice and lost. He could've accepted the plea deal. I do think he should begin having chances for parole after he's served a certain amount of time.

Anonymous

The kid had a chance to plead guilty to a crime he actually committed. Instead hedecided to go to trial. You cant cure stupid. You should pick a different battle!

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