Juvenile Justice and the Coincidence of the National Press Club Book Fair

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The Supreme Court heard a dispute in November testing whether the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment prevents states from sentencing someone under 18 to life-without-parole for a non-homicide crime. (Read my preview story about the two cases from Florida and a recounting of the Court’s oral arguments.) A week after the arguments, through a coincidence, I was paired at a table at the National Press Club Book Fair and Authors’ Night with a man named R. Dwayne Betts, who had a role in the cases. Betts was at the Book Fair because he has written a memoir called A Question of Freedom about surviving and coming-of-age in prison. When he was 16 he committed a carjacking in Virginia. In his memoir, he recounts his eight-year prison experience and how he escaped into books and began writing essays and poetry. He has been out nearly five years and is now a graduate student. In the Supreme Court cases of Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida, Betts joined an amicus curiae brief with such other former juvenile offenders as actor Charles Dutton and former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson. “A sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, like a death sentence, extinguishes all hope that a juvenile offender might one day contribute to his or her community …” they said in their brief, siding with the Florida defendants and against the option of life-without-parole for juveniles. As it happened, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is often a crucial swing vote, asked during arguments why juveniles — and not adults — should have “a constitutional right to hope.” The lawyer for one of the Florida youths serving life said, “the juvenile is different than the adult …. (and) has an inherent capacity to change.” The lawyer said minors should be allowed review of a life sentence and a chance for parole as they mature. A majority of the justices appeared torn over how to resolve the case. A ruling is likely by next spring.

Betts was a easy partner with whom to peddle books. Although we plainly appealed to two distinct sets of readers, we decided we could work together to pitch our books to the hundreds of people who filed past the tables piled with tomes, ranging from politics to cooking to wrestling. We told people we offered an inside look at the two ends of the criminal justice system, his at the ground, mine at the top of the appeal heap. We thought that if someone didn’t care for my subject, he might like his, and vice versa. We talked up our respective projects to potential buyers and to each other. In the end, we decided to buy a copy of each other’s book and inscribe it. Dwayne Betts wrote, “For Joan Biskupic, who was kind enough to share a table with me and will teach me about Scalia.”

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