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March 16th, 2010
09:00 AM ET

Growing Up Behind Bars: Life in prison for teens

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-photo-caption image= caption="Dwayne Betts was arrested at 16 for a carjacking and spent nearly 9 years in Virginia's adult prisons."]

(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.

Life in prison for teens Video

“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.

Filed under: Crime • Growing Up Behind Bars
soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. F.A Moon

    My comment is that,this young man and other younger people need to know truthfully, how bad it is inside for them.Everybody comes out and says, I wasnt raped or beaten ,or robbed is Lying thru their teeth.Maybe , you could stop the next car jacking if you tell kids just how bad it was for you in prison. Dont act like it was just a matter of being locked away from society.

    March 27, 2010 at 8:45 pm |
  2. trisha sealy

    can anyone tell me when the new mandatory minimum statute of 20-40 years for juveniles committing violent crimes went into effect in pa.?

    March 25, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
  3. jenny

    The truth is that there are many disparities to this issue of juveniles in adult prison, but at the same time juveniles want to act and behave like adults. It is not until they have already committed the crime that society wants to treat them like adults. Where do we draw the line? Do juveniles who commit adults crimes should be treated like kids? Enough is enough.

    March 23, 2010 at 11:17 pm |
  4. francisco

    This is what I would call "twisted justice". How do we think that prison is the solution for a x-year-ol teenager? What's the objective? REVENGE OR "CORRECTION". The word correction means, as I suppose we all know, taking to practice/action the verb "to correct", that is, making it right(eous)!. It is sad that we might think that a life of a 12-year-old should be punished forever without any chance of tryining to investigate and to correct the child's pysche, behaviour, manners, education, and spiritual issues.

    Yes, I know the victims family would say... but how do we have my beloved back? The answer is: you won't. But you won't even if you sentece to death or for life a childs future which might be corrected.

    There is also a thought that should be assessed here. What went wrong with that child's childhood? Did he have a sane and "cared" childhood? Are his/her parents taking him/her to that dark future? If so, is that right?

    At the end these kind of facts are completely sad, and it is not about an isolated fact, it is about how society and government are also co-accountable for that!.


    March 20, 2010 at 6:14 am |
  5. mackenzie fish

    Dear CNN,

    I think that it's wrong to prosecute a minor as an adult. I don't believe it's fair that one man such as Dwayne Betts be sentenced to life in prison, when another person of the same age commits a crime and is prosecuted as a juvenile. What is the point of having a juvenile justice system if it is not always followed. A crime is a crime, and a kid is a kid. Therefore, they should all receive the same punishment. How is it possible for anyone learn from their mistakes if they never have the opportunity to do so? I also think that because of the unfairness many minors are dealt with, they along with their family and friends loose respect for the system and the law. Having lost respect for the law, they might begin committing crimes themselves. It's like a cycle..and until our justice system realizes that, I think the crime rate in our country, and the number of juveniles being prosecuted as an adult will continue to increase. Instead of imprisoning these kids for a lifetime, the system should encourage them and give them hope. No one is born to be "bad" or a criminal, so if it's possible for them to receive another chance, why shouldn't they have that chance?

    March 18, 2010 at 5:44 pm |
  6. John Stafford, J.D.

    Myra Levick may want to consider that for 4000+ years, children at about age 7 on average have always been considered to know right from wrong. Can they comprehend the extent and effects of the life imprisonment punishment? That IS an area worthy of consideration. Mary Ann Rippey makes some excellent points here, above, and from her personal knowledge and anguish.

    March 17, 2010 at 11:43 am |
  7. John Stafford, J.D.

    A. Smith is totally wrong, on every count. The average prisoner cost of US imprisonment is closer to $20,000 so he/she overstates that cost by nearly quadruple. I am a former trial and defense and appellate counsel in 400 criminal cases, and the Federal Chief AL Judge at the US DOI. I have known many US Supreme Court Justices personally, and was even sworn in to the Bar by Justice Douglas in his Chambers. I have been a member of the Bar of that Court since 1969. Has A. Smith done ANY of that? I was also offered the job as the chief corrections official in the King County, WA system. My Dad, a US Marine Colonel, guarded the US Naval Prison with his 200 Marines at Kittery, ME in 1947-49, as well as NSA in 1961-4 at Ft. Meade, MD. The US Constitution contains NO provision for Federal funding of education, which is why the fig leaf of "National Defense" was 1st used, by Ike, to fund college loans. The former liberal Republican Sen. Bob Stafford of VT., a distant cousin of mine, initiated the un-Constitutional "Stafford Loans" program. As a Senate staffer in 1975-6, as the Special Counsel to the liberal Democrat Chairman Warren Magnuson, I knew the author of the "Pell Grants", the liberal Democrat Sen. Claiborne Pell of RI (where I attended the Naval Justice School). I am a Constitutional Law scholar, and was 4th out of 150 in it at my law school with the famous liberal Prof. Arval Morris as my teacher, and actually know it thoroughly. Is that true of A. Smith? People who know nothing, should learn, and study their subject first, before they post such inaccurate Comments, which mislead the public. PS Sadly, the multi-billion dollar un-Constitutional Federal education funding SOARED during BOTH Bush Administrations, contrary to A. Smith's false assertions.

    March 17, 2010 at 11:34 am |
  8. Myra F. Levick, PhD

    Mr. Betts story is moving and significant. But the most significant part of this program, I thought, was to highlight the cruel and unusual punishment meted out to teens for crimes in which there was no homicide. It would have been interesting, important and enlightening to hear more from the two attorneys who were involved in bringing this case to the supreme court.

    March 16, 2010 at 10:19 pm |
  9. A. Smith, Oregon

    When the Republican lawmakers under the marching orders of the horrific Bush-Cheney Republican administration gutted public and higher education funds for their Iraqi and Afghanistani war efforts, America lost an entire generation of America's brightest future thru its citizens entering higher education and by college educations.

    The Republican lawmakers decided it was cheaper to defund public school funds, and college education grants than to house the predicted increase of those same American teens entering into America's massive prison system.

    Unfortunately, it is the American Taxpayers who are forced to pay 75,000 dollars per year per prisoner!

    It is the utter height of hypocrisy for the Republican Party to obstruct, block, scream and yell when Democratic lawmakers attempt to fund worthy students with 25,000 dollar grants while the Republican Party pushes those same students into prisons where taxpayers are forced to pay 75,000 per year per prisoner.

    Currently a full 10% of the entire Public School student bodys are composed of homeless teens, many of whom will end up in America's massive prison system, costing taxpayers 75,000 dollars per year per prisoner.

    March 16, 2010 at 6:40 pm |
  10. joe taylor

    I too have had brushes with the law,I grew up in the projects in brooklyn new those days just like today those bastard demon like so called officers,made it obvious their contemt for black people.they hated me and i still hate them.they shove things in your rectum to obtain your obedience.thank god they didnt do that to me.....I would have been waiting outside for that devil and lets just say that monster would have been unable to do that crap again.

    March 16, 2010 at 5:16 pm |
  11. Mary Anne Rippey

    Dwayne Betts story is a wonderful story for him. How has his victim faired after all this time? Is the victim important, can the victim carry on with a productive life after being a victim of a violent crime?
    My brother was killed by a 17 year old; he is serving Life without parole. I pray the Supreme Court ruling will not affect his sentence.
    The Alabama State Legislature has tried to change the law several times and they always want to make it retroactive.
    I do not think laws passed should be retroactive, we have been through the court system, the jury made a decision and the judge handed down the sentence the offender pending appeals should serve his time.
    It is terrible that juveniles are being sentenced as adult, but they are convicted of an adult crime, but as a victim I personally do not object to juveniles being tried and sentenced as adults if they have committed a violent crime.

    March 16, 2010 at 4:44 pm |