Drexel professor Cheri Brooks, center, alongside Courtney Boyd, left, and John Pace, two former inmates who participated in a classroom discussion on juvenile justice.
How should juveniles be punished for their crimes? Does the criminal justice system devote adequate attention to rehabilitation? How should societal circumstances affect the treatment of a criminal defendant?
The questions echoed around a fourth-floor classroom in MacAlister Hall earlier this month. More often than not they hung in the air, provoking discussion and deeper thought, if not necessarily leading to pat resolutions. For class guests John Pace and Courtney Boyd, two men incarcerated on mandatory sentences of life without parole when they were teenagers and recently released following a series of increasingly liberating court decisions, the questions carried the weight of decades in prison. For the students taking “Ethical Issues in Criminal Justice” with Cheri Brooks, JD, an adjunct instructor in the Department of English & Philosophy in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences, the questions and the guests invited reconsideration and reflection.
Brooks, who is an attorney at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, brought Pace and Boyd to campus to put a human face on the philosophical ideas her students analyze in class. She met Pace at a teacher training for college professors held at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Graterford and sponsored by the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which made retroactive an earlier decision banning the type of sentence handed to Boyd and Pace, Brooks’ colleagues at the Defender Association are representing 225 Philadelphia juvenile lifers, as they’ve come to be known, who are seeking new sentencing hearings. They are among nearly 500 Pennsylvania lifers — and more than 2,000 nationwide — being given a second chance.
“How did we get to the point where we don’t recognize as a society that children are different than adults?” Pace asked the class.
He pointed to the research that fueled the “superpredator” myth in the 1990s and the increasingly punitive legislation that followed. The research — and the fervor that came in its wake — created an imbalance in the criminal justice system that turned attention from prevention and rehabilitation to punishment and retribution, he said. But it missed a key element of the discussion.
“The research doesn’t touch on human factors,” said Pace. “Human beings are complex.”
Brooks opened the conversation, which often tangled with the human capacity for growth, by asking the class to consider their own acts of youthful indiscretion — specifically, the worst thing they had done as children.
“Now, imagine if every time someone thought of you,” said Brooks, “that’s what they thought of.”
Pace shared his story of taking responsibility early for his crime and turning to education as a way forward. He received a GED and a bachelor’s degree while in prison, but he said he was largely left to seek personal growth on his own, without institutional efforts to aid his progress and spur his rehabilitation. While inside, he came to see the institutional failings as one symptom of a broader concern.
“We as a society don’t want to recognize redemptive qualities,” said Pace. “We have this propensity to want to punish.”
One student, responding to the apparent enthusiasm for punishment, suggested that it stems from “American individualism.”
“You did the crime, you do the time,” she said, “and when you get out we’ll still treat you like a pariah.”
Another student remarked that politicians too often pass black-and-white laws like those establishing mandatory minimum sentences, when the people subjected to those laws operate in a spectrum of grays.
Kevin M. Moseby, PhD, an assistant teaching professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences who encouraged his “Introduction to Sociology” students to attend the open discussion, said, “it’s a whole lot easier, too, when it’s black bodies you are judging.” Both Pace and Boyd are black, as are well more than half of their fellow juvenile lifers, according to the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
Boyd, who met Pace in a law clinic at Graterford and left prison just six days before meeting Brooks’ students, said he was still getting used to being out. After 36 years in prison, “all this stuff is overwhelming,” he said.
American society has become all too comfortable tossing away men like he and Boyd, Pace said, but the court decisions opening the door to their release represent a step in the right direction — even if a small one.
“We’ve gotten away from recognizing the dignity in other human beings,” said Pace.
The slow march of the courts and legislation that could reform the criminal justice system led one student to suggest that the only way to help restore prisoners’ lost dignity is by focusing on rehabilitation to give people like Pace and Boyd a chance to succeed if and when they do get out.
“Prisons were established by the Quakers for rehabilitation, and obviously we’ve strayed from that,” she said, “but I think we have to get back to it.”
For Shraddha Damaraju, a biological sciences student in Brooks’ course, having Pace and Boyd present elevated the typical class discussion of the philosophy guiding the laws that govern the criminal justice system.
“It was an entirely different, eye-opening experience to actually meet two juvenile lifers, to hear their stories about their backgrounds and to hear the passion in their voices when they discussed how they dealt with the prison lifestyle and attempted to make the best of it,” she said. “Having John and Courtney there made the entire issue much more charged and humanized, and I found myself sympathizing with them a great deal as we discussed the various aspects of the juvenile lifer justice issue through the lens of everything they had experienced.”
Chris Peace, a mechanical engineering student, acknowledged that the numerous factors influencing crime and punishment make it a multidimensional topic with no easy answers.
“What age do we designate as a break point between a psychological juvenile and adult? Are we able to or should we include societal factors that may have led the person to commit or be part of the crime? Was the person societally ‘set up to fail’?” he said. “And the list could go on and on.”
For that reason, the conversation in MacAlister Hall shed new light on the search for solutions — at least as far as the classroom is concerned.
“Having John and Courtney present to recount their experiences and present their points of view on all of these things helped give me an insight that was instrumental to the discussion,” said Peace. “Specifically, John’s drive to better himself and seek an education while inside got me to think a lot about potential psychological factors.”
One thing was clear after the discussion: It got students thinking more deeply about the ethical issues they wrestle with in class.
“It’s an extremely delicate, extremely complex issue that we definitely need to think about and address more as a society,” said Damaraju.