Editor's Note: The Supreme Court is considering whether life sentences for teenage criminals who haven't committed a homicide is cruel and unusual punishment. Some of the best legal minds in the country have fiercely debated the issue. The one thing they all seem to agree on: there are no easy answers. CNN's Jason Carroll reports for part two of American Morning's original series, "Growing Up Behind Bars."
By Jason Carroll, CNN
(CNN) – As Dwayne Betts addressed thousands of students at last year's University of Maryland's commencement ceremonies, his thoughts then and now are of how far he has come in his life, how five years before that moment, he was locked up in prison.
“When I was 16-years-old, on December 7th, 1996, I carjacked a man in a parking lot in Springfield, Virginia … at gunpoint,” says Betts.
At the time, Betts says he was a high school honor student who had fallen in with the wrong crowd.
“I think the truth is sort a strange mix of opportunity. … You don't turn 16 and have a gun in your hand. So I think it was a lot of baby steps.”
It was a major step. Although no one was physically hurt during his crime, Betts was prosecuted as an adult. Carjacking in Virginia carries a maximum sentence of life.
“There's no way to quantify what a life sentence does to a person," he says. "If I had to wake up every morning to a life sentence, I don't even want to imagine what I would have become.”
Betts, at 16, received the minimum sentence, serving nearly nine years in Virginia's adult prison system, living alongside the state's most violent criminals.
“I'm still thinking about what the time did to me. In a sense, it became natural to walk down the hall and see somebody getting beat up. In a lot of ways, I think I was the exception in that I didn't get raped, I didn't get robbed.”
Does Betts feel his punishment fit his crime?
“I think that for me and for most young people who find themselves transferred to adult court, their case could definitely be handled in juvenile court,” he says.
What happened to Betts is now being felt at the highest court.
A legal brief about his case was submitted to the Supreme Court as the justices consider another case challenging whether its cruel and unusual punishment to sentence juveniles to life sentences for non-homicide crimes.
Legal experts are lining up on both sides of the debate.
“Let them serve out the remainder of their life in custody,” says Shannon Goessling, a former prosecutor. “It was justice at the time that they were sentenced, it is justice today, it will be justice tomorrow.”
Marska Levick of the Juvenile Law Center sees it differently.
“Kids are different. That’s something every one of us knows as a parent. And the law needs to recognize and in fact in many respects has historically recognized that kids are different.”
In 2005, the Supreme Court abolished capital punishment for juveniles, citing evidence showing teenagers are too immature to be punished that way.
Could that ruling influence the court's decision this time?
“This is likely to be a very close case because, in general, this is a tough-on-crime court, but it is also a court that has recognized that when it comes to juveniles cruel and unusual punishment means something different than it does with regards to adults,” says CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.
Betts says he did not grow hardened or hateful while serving his time. Instead, he says he grew up fast and worked hard.
Since being released, Betts began a book club for teenagers and has written a memoir about his experience. One, he says, no teenager should have to repeat.
“I committed a very adult crime, I think. I carjacked the man and I had a gun," says Betts. "And I don't think I'm trying to wiggle out of responsibility for my crime, I'm just acknowledging that we set up a juvenile justice system to deal with kids who commit crimes.”
Right now, there are more than one hundred juveniles serving life sentences for crimes where a homicide was not committed.
If the Supreme Court reaches a ruling saying life sentences for non-homicides is unconstitutional when juveniles are involved, it will then have to decide if that ruling is retroactive.