Parole Project Descends on D.C.: Staff and Clients Attend Freedom Celebration

Louisiana Parole Project traveled to Washington, D.C. in early September to recognize the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Miller v. Alabama decision finding mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles to be unconstitutional. The Freedom Celebration, organized by the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, included advocates, legal and legislative partners, and directly impacted individuals and families from across the nation. Our staff and clients shared their common experiences and united with other impacted people in support of furthering justice reform during the two-day event.

On the first day, CFSY staff led a panel discussion at the House of Representative’s Rayburn Office Building with members of justice reform organizations and congressional staffers who heard testimonies from former juvenile lifers, their families, and victims of crime. Formerly incarcerated youth and youth violence survivors discussed the need for federal youth sentencing reform. The panel also addressed key victories in juvenile justice policy, as well as identifying areas for continued progress. Following the meeting, Parole Project staff joined with selected advocates for meetings with various lawmakers and their staff to advocate for upcoming legislation aimed at eliminating extreme sentencing for youth. With the key message of making sure children are thought of and treated as children, attendees called on the legislators to make sure no child is ever told they will die in prison again.

The next day opened with the “Miller at 10” panel at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, marking reform milestones and providing an overview of the current state of youth incarceration in the U.S. during the decade following Miller. Also discussed were future policy initiatives with the ultimate goal of ensuring the U.S. will no longer be the world’s only country that sentences children to life without parole. While the primary focus was on Miller, the panelists highlighted the impact of Montgomery v. Louisiana. Henry Montgomery, a Parole Project client, successfully argued to the Supreme Court in 2016 that Miller applied retroactively and opened the door to more than 3,000 men and women nationwide who were sent to prison for life when they were children. When the audience learned that Mr. Montgomery was in attendance they immediately gave him a standing ovation.

Later that evening, more than 300 attendees gathered in the Omni Shoreham’s Regency Ballroom for the first ever Freedom Party. Advocates, formerly incarcerated youth, and other supporters listened to CFSY leadership share brief messages of gratitude, hope, and support for all in attendance and those attending in spirit. CFSY Co-Executive Director Jody Kent Lavy said it best: “This is for you. This is for the prom you missed, or the graduation you missed, or the birthday parties you missed. You deserve to celebrate.” Few chairs were filled as the music began and the ballroom became a dancehall. Joy filled the room as men and women who as children looked out on life through prison bars and razor wire filled the dance floor.