We can’t write a kid off at age 14
Last week, the United States Supreme Court outlawed a sentence that a former client of mine, Adolfo Davis, received when he was barely 14 years old. That sentence — mandatory life without parole for youth under 18 — made Adolfo’s age and his difficult, deprived childhood irrelevant to the judicial process.
It meant that Adolfo was sentenced as if he himself had committed a double murder back in 1990, though he shot no one. With no parole opportunity, it mattered little that Adolfo grew up, changed dramatically and responded to the structure and treatment he needed years earlier.
As his individual therapist for several years and supporter for 14, I know Adolfo well.
Adolfo was a troubled child from a poverty-stricken and neglectful South Side background. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had documented that starting at 8 years old, Adolfo was banging his head, suffering chronic insomnia and engaging in self-destructive behavior. Of course with little sleep, hungry and suffering the stress of a chaotic and impoverished family life, he felt overwhelmed and fared poorly in school, cutting off the avenue for escape that education can provide.
Hardened criminal at an early age with repeat aggravated robberies to prove it? Hardly. Looking beyond the most superficial layer of his criminal record, one sees that Adolfo’s earlier crimes of “aggravated robberies” were those of a desperate, hungry child — stealing $2 in food stamps at 10, $2 and $3 other times to buy food. Ultimately, Adolfo took to the streets and became involved in a gang, typical behavior for a child in his life circumstances and community.
It is little surprise, then, that in October 1990 Adolfo participated in the break-in at an apartment that led to the double murder. Ordered to come along by two older gang members, he thought it was to be a robbery. He never fired his gun.
What is a surprise is that Adolfo, now incarcerated at the Stateville Correctional Center, had and maintains a good core given what he lived through as a child and then in prison. Finally and ironically in prison, he found a stable and even supportive environment. He read extensively; he engaged in years of therapy; he wrote poetry; he reached out to at-risk youth to prevent them from following in his footsteps.
Indeed, evidence showed that Adolfo needed structure and services all along, but he fell through the substantial cracks of the system. Just two years into his detention and well before his sentencing, he was described as a “model” person and “one of the best students” at the local juvenile detention center.
Adolfo Davis is not a typical inmate. I feel as certain as a person could be that he is not a danger to society and that releasing him from prison is the right thing to do. As a longtime victim advocate, I do not make such statements lightly. There are cases from my work that will always haunt me. Some people belong in prison for the rest of their lives. Adolfo Davis isn’t one of them.
Adolfo accepts responsibility for the serious mistakes of his childhood and sincerely feels remorse about the lives taken during the crime in which he participated.
Now 35, Adolfo has served over half his life in prison. This is long enough for the crime he committed.
Jill Stevens is a licensed clinical counselor. She has worked for 20 years with both perpetrators and victims of violent crime, including nearly eight years with the Illinois Department of Corrections.