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John Legend: State should remove death sentence for children

I was born in the great state of Ohio. I was raised in Springfield by hardworking parents and graduated from Springfield North High. Even though my career as a musician has taken me around the world, Ohio is still in my heart and much of my family remains here. I’m proud to be from the Buckeye State, but in my efforts to help reform our criminal-justice system, I was distressed to learn that Ohio is one of the states that has yet to abolish the practice of sentencing children to die in prison.

This punishment is already considered inhumane by the rest of the world. The U.S. is the only country that allows it at all, and the majority of the children who get these sentences have been victims of violence or experienced trauma themselves. Instead of intervening to heal or prevent the trauma these children have endured, too often we sentence them to die in prison.

Most concerning, nationally African-American children are sentenced to life without parole at 10 times the rate of white children, a fact that obviously strikes close to home for me and my family. I look beyond the statistics and think specifically about my teenage nephews, nieces and cousins growing up in Ohio.

January 25 marked two years since the U.S. Supreme Court most recently weighed in on this issue, also known as juvenile life without parole, in its Montgomery v. Louisiana decision. In that ruling, the court held that life-without-parole sentences for children are almost always unconstitutional and that youth must have hope for a life outside of prison. The justices also quoted well-established developmental brain science demonstrating that children are different from adults in their unique capacity to grow and change, and that they are limited in their ability to assess risk and consequences.

The petitioner in that case, Henry Montgomery, has been in prison in Louisiana since he was 17 for an offense that happened when John F. Kennedy was president. He has spent 54 years in prison. In February — in what many consider to be a grave miscarriage of justice — Montgomery was denied parole and remains incarcerated. He is 71 years old.

Others across the country are also waiting for the review they legally deserve, but the landscape is not all bleak. Many juvenile lifers, as they are known, are being resentenced, and some are even coming home. Hundreds of people once sentenced to die behind bars are being granted a second chance to be free and contributing members of society — or from another angle, a first chance, since they entered the system before they were old enough to vote, hold a job, or before they even finished high school.

Today, 20 states and Washington, D.C., ban life-without-parole for children; in 2012, that number was just five. This shows an emerging national consensus that dooming children to such a fate is morally reprehensible, and that we as a nation believe in rehabilitation and redemption. Ohio is conspicuously missing from that list of 20.


Last session, a bill that would have banned these cruel and unusual sentences made its way through the Ohio House with broad bipartisan support, but failed to advance in the Senate in the final weeks of session. This legislative session, I am once again hopeful that reform will take hold.

There is juvenile-justice legislation sponsored by Rep. Jeffrey Rezabek, R-Clayton, for example, that includes a provision to achieve what so many other states have already accomplished. This type of reform doesn’t just open the prison doors to let youthful offenders walk free nor does it guarantee their release; rather, it gives them the opportunity to go before the parole board and demonstrate their growth and rehabilitation.

I am grateful to Rezabek for his initiative on this crucial issue, but as my friend Common wrote in our song “Glory” from the movie “Selma,” “No one can win the war individually.” It takes a village, or, in our case, a state — other legislators in Ohio must also offer their support in order to ensure that we protect one of the most vulnerable populations in our country.

It is time for Ohio to act in the spirit of the Montgomery decision, and with regard for the common wisdom that tells us that there is no child beyond redemption.

John Legend is a singer, songwriter, actor, producer, founder of #FREEAMERICA and a native of Springfield.

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