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110 people once sentenced to life in prison as juveniles convene for 'freedom party'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Ten years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to mandatory life without parole is unconstitutional. Since then, more than 900 people who thought they would die in prison have been released through courts, clemency or parole. NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson met a few of them in Washington this month.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: They came to the nation's capital for what they called a freedom party. One-hundred-ten people once sentenced to life without the possibility of parole meant to share their stories. Christi Cheramie entered prison in Louisiana two weeks after her 16th birthday. It took her 25 years to win release. She remembers the day she finally ran into the arms of her mother in February 2019.

CHRISTI CHERAMIE: As funny as this may sound, we were never able to run in the institution. And so I had my family prepared for when I walked outside of the gate that we would run through the parking lot and make a left, because I just had to get that burst of energy out, you know, with that excitement.

JOHNSON: Since then, Cheramie's worked to help other incarcerated people transition home. That's what Don Jones does, too. Jones spent 26 years in prison in Pennsylvania before his release three years ago. At this conference in Washington, he's happy to be around other people who understand what he's feeling.

DON JONES: It's rare to get an opportunity to be in a room with people who have similar experiences. You know, in talking to a lot of guys and the women, it's like, I'm not strange.

JOHNSON: Behind bars, Jones helped start a program called Real Street Talk that won national recognition from the Trump administration.

JONES: I'm one of the only prisoners probably in the country who got a citation from Jeff Sessions' Justice Department, which to me was like, seriously?

JOHNSON: But Jones says he's not unusual.

JONES: It's men and women inside the institutions, man, that raised me, you know, that showed me how to do things properly. You know, I want people to know that it's safe to let lifers out. It's safe to let people out of prison.

JOHNSON: Jones says the recidivism rate for juveniles who were sentenced to life in prison and ultimately released is very low. But he says he knows the political rhetoric on crime is heating up as shootings and murders plague many cities. The former lifers say that debate misses a key point - that people convicted of crimes as children and adolescents when their brains are still developing have the capacity to change.

Jody Kent Lavy co-directs the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which organized the conference. She says there's been significant change in the past decade.

JODY KENT LAVY: In 2012, there were five states that banned life without parole for children. Today, it's 25 states and another six that have nobody serving the sentence. So it's been a very rapid rate of change.

JOHNSON: Still, she says, there's a lot of work for advocates to do. A campaign is underway in Michigan to abolish life without parole for juveniles in all cases. Legislation with that goal in mind is pending in several other states. Her group is also pressing Congress to pass a bipartisan bill that would guarantee judicial review for juveniles who have served 20 years behind bars.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.