Are Children (Un)Worthy of a Second Chance?

By Denzel McCampbell

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled the automatic sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole unconstitutional, while also ruling that each juvenile must be looked at on a case-by-case basis when sentencing. Most recently, the Court has added that this be applied retroactively. With that ruling, prosecutors are working to send their “recommendations” for each case that involved sentencing juveniles to life without parole (JLWOP).

Wayne County, the most populous county in Michigan, has the highest number of juveniles serving sentences that deny them the possibility of freedom and it’s up to Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy to recommend to a judge the type of re-sentencing these kids should receive.

Kym Worthy’s no stranger to controversial cases involving young people, especially young men. She’s had to respond to accusations that she and her office kept an innocent juvenile, then 14-year-old Devontae Sanford, in jail despite evidence that he provided a false confession to a quadruple murder in 2007 because he was scared and had poor legal representation. Sanford, now 23 years old, is now free, but as of July 12th, his charges had yet to be thrown out.

Kym Worthy office’s website states, “The mission of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office is to pursue justice…” Justice for whom? That’s the question that has been raised in Sanford’s case and is the question being raised by community members in response to Worthy recommending that 60 juveniles continue to serve life sentences that would deny them freedom.

People across the country are taking notice of this. Kym Worthy and Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper (who’s fighting to keep 44 of 49 folks with JLWOP cases in prison for life), were recently slammed by the New York Times editorial board for ignoring the law of the land. The paper called Worthy and Cooper “misbehaving prosecutors.” Why are prosecutors in the Metro Detroit area rejecting science and guidance from the Supreme Court?

On Thursday, the Justice Matters Taskforce with MOSES – a faith-based group organizing and advocating on social justice issues – marched to Kym Worthy’s office with the message “No parole, no justice”, to demand that she get right on juvenile sentencing. The group held the march after numerous attempts to talk with Worthy went unanswered. Folks are disappointed that Worthy is balking against the reality of child development and seeking to imprison children despite science showing that juveniles lack the brain development to be fully cognizant of their actions. That sentiment has been recognized by the United States Supreme Court for more than a decade. Kym Worthy apparently disagrees and does not feel justice should be sought on all sides.

The Supreme Court did rule that life without parole could be considered in rare instances, only when a case has been looked at individually and is of a heinous nature that shows there is no reform to be achieved through the juvenile. Yet, there are 145 JLWOP cases in Wayne County and Worthy is seeking life without parole for 60 of those cases. In what world does 41 percent represent a rarity?

Kym Worthy has been singled out by the Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project for her “extreme outlier” stance on juvenile sentencing – an alarming finding on a person who is key on carrying out the Supreme Court’s decision. While a judge will have final say on resentencing, prosecutors have opportunities to recommend whether re-sentencing should or should not happen. This is a power that the Justice Matters Taskforce recognizes and seeks to work with Worthy to achieve true rehabilitative justice for the people of Wayne County. However, when they sent three members of the faith community to request a meeting with her, instead of her staff scheduling a sit-down, they had the representatives escorted out of the public building by five Wayne County Deputies.

Alton, a member of the taskforce, shared his story as a formerly incarcerated father during the march. He said, “They are building jails for our children, instead of schools.” A stark reminder as the group stood across the street from the unfinished Wayne County jail site that is costing county residents an additional $1 million per month. Alton is right – we must change our priorities as a society. We should not lock children up in prison and throw away the key, we must invest in the health, safety, and education of every individual and knock down the systematic barriers that we so often see lead to crime.

Kym Worthy is a public servant and she should seek restorative justice for all the residents she serves and should be open to discussion with all stakeholders in the community. Kym Worthy can be a steward in that fight. Kym, it’s time to show that you are worthy to all Wayne County residents.