Law Professor Cara Drinan, a leading advocate and expert on juvenile justice reform, is working on a book titled The War on Kids: How American Juvenile Justice Lost its Way. The inspiration for the book, she says, is Terrence Graham of Graham v. Florida. In that 2010 case, the Supreme Court ruled it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment to sentence juvenile offenders to life in prison without parole for non-homicide crimes.
At age 16, Graham, along with two other teens, attempted to rob a barbeque restaurant. They came through an unlocked back door and fled when they confronted the manager. Graham was sentenced to life without parole for his involvement in the crime.
Drinan has met with Graham and continues regular correspondence with him. After the Supreme Court decision, he was resentenced and received 25 years. He’s now 29 and will be released at 39. “Even 25 years for a crime where no money was taken and no one was killed is extreme for a 16-year-old,” says Drinan, whose passion is apparent whenever she talks about the need for juvenile justice reform. “What will he do when he gets out at 39? The skills he needs to survive in prison are exactly the opposite of the skills he needs to be a functioning member of society.”
In writing the book, Drinan wants to raise awareness and she wants readers to see Terrence and the others she writes about as human beings.
“By and large, most children who have been convicted of crime have been tremendously victimized themselves — they’ve been exposed to violence, have an incarcerated parent, they live amid substance abuse and poverty. They have a name and a face and a story. And they want a second chance.”
Drinan says she’s hopeful when she looks at recent Supreme Court rulings on juveniles, which are trickling down to states. “The Supreme Court is acknowledging the brain science that tells us children are less culpable and more amenable to rehabilitation,” she says.
“It’s also really powerful to see bipartisan support on the Hill for criminal justice reform in general,” says Drinan, who was one of the original drafters of the pending Equal Justice Under Law Act of 2016, which enforces the Sixth Amendment Right to effective counsel.
“There is a growing realization that this is not who we are as a county. We don’t throw people away.”