Thursday, November 21, 2019

Unconstitutional Life

By Brian Bassett

“I sentence you to three consecutive terms of life without parole. This court is adjourned.” The crack of the judge’s gavel fades away along with the memory. This was the second time in my life that I had stood before a judge who pronounced this same sentence, with twenty years in between. The second time wasn’t nearly as incomprehensible, as I’d had twenty years to come to grips with my current reality.  At the age of thirty-five, I’d pretty well extinguished that faint glimmer of hope that said I would no longer die in prison for a crime I’d committed as a juvenile. I suppose you can become used to anything if it goes on long enough. Besides, I wasn’t owed anything beyond a new resentencing hearing, where the judge had to take into account potentially mitigating factors due to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Miller v. Alabama, and another in 2015 in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which made Miller’s decision retroactive. My resentencing judge simply did what was required by law and summarily sent me on my way, probably hoping never to lay eyes on me again. 

And yet, after I appealed the resentencing court’s decision, the appellate court overturned my sentence of three consecutive life terms and remanded my case for resentencing a second time. The State immediately appealed the verdict to the Washington Supreme Court and, once again, the court ruled in my favor, banning life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles in Washington. Now, a little over four years later, I once again stand on the brink of a resentencing hearing. With the possibility of another LWOP sentence off the table, one might assume I would be ecstatic about my future prospects. Some might see a huge victory in the elimination of juvenile LWOP sentences in Washington, but sadly I believe it is just the start of another year’s long battle to win a future for juvenile offenders. 

Recently I was asked my thoughts on what it meant to be getting another resentencing hearing after the 2015 Montgomery v. Louisiana Supreme Court decision. My initial thought was that it will be pretty draining. It means that I will once again be plastered all over newsfeeds and told how monstrous I am, yet again. Twenty-three years have passed since my initial trial and just the idea of having to endure another sentencing hearing chills me to the core. I, too, must relive the trauma inflicted upon me as a child.  The hope of potentially having a sentence where I get to go home is nearly as bad, even if it’s a home I’ve never been to. You see, sometimes having hope, no matter how meager, can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there is the possibility of one day walking out of prison a free man, and on the other, the likelihood that my dreams will be crushed by the sheer weight of reality. For years I have been shipped back and forth between the prison where I reside and the county jail where this journey began twenty-four years ago. Even though several weighty court decisions have gone in my favor, my sentence hasn’t changed one bit and neither have my expectations.  I will be climbing aboard yet another chain bus in less than a month, and I can’t help but be filled with apprehension and trepidation as my court date nears. I can’t get too excited about having my LWOP sentence overturned when I’m expecting to walk away with a new one which could amount to de facto life. [De facto life is defined as a release date beyond a prisoner’s life expectancy. Ed.] Some may not realize that getting rid of an LWOP sentence doesn’t mean I will ever get out of prison. With three consecutive twenty-five year life sentences it equates to the same thing; I will still die in prison. 

Since Roper v. Simmons in 2005 abolished death sentences for juveniles and Miller v. Alabama in 2010 abolished mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles, the Supreme Courts have consistently ruled that juveniles are different and can’t be treated as mini-adults. This conclusion stems from neuroscience studies showing that brains are not fully formed and developed until the age of twenty-five. This means that children are far more impressionable, and thus less culpable, and they can’t see the long-term effects of their actions. I know this to be true, looking back upon many instances from my youth when my lack of foresight and reasoning amazes me even still. I think nearly everyone can say the same about their former selves, even if the errors made by some are not as egregious. Still, the axiom remains, and children are different than adults.  

Based on my resentencing experience and after having seen many others endure the same, I’m beginning to have some serious concerns with how juvenile LWOPs are being perceived and portrayed, even after the landmark science-based legal decisions have been rendered in our favor. One issue troubling me is how courts misrepresent what it means to be “irreparably corrupt.” For the State, it is enough to label a child irreparably corrupt if his or her crime was of an extremely violent or heinous nature. In most juvenile LWOP cases, the crimes were all extremely violent and heinous in nature, which is why they were given such an extreme sentence in the first place. By simply focusing on the nature of the crime itself, the State is circumventing the spirit of the Miller decision, which is that children are not to be treated as mini-adults. Also, the crime itself tells us nothing more than that a troubled teen made some poor decisions while their mental faculties were yet to be fully developed. 

So, what happens when a court falsely labels a youth as being irreparably corrupt? Since LWOP is now off the table due to a Washington Supreme Court ruling, one can realistically expect a juvenile defendant deemed irreparable corrupt to be handed a prison term of fifty or sixty years by the courts, a de facto life sentence. And so, kids are still being sent to prison to die despite their potential as young human beings to mature and be rehabilitated. The true spirit of the Miller decision holds that even children who commit heinous crimes are capable of change, and lower courts ought to subscribe to this fundamental fact. 

To be truly irreparably corrupt is to exhibit a harmful pattern of behavior over a decade or more of incarceration. There are rare individuals who do not mature out of transient immaturity, their destructive actions continuous and obvious; assaulting staff and other prisoners, demonstrating antisocial behaviors, accruing long infraction histories well beyond the age when one’s brain is fully developed, and potentially killing another person. Such behavior defines “irreparably corrupt,” but it’s impossible to accurately determine as much at one’s sentencing hearing. It is important to sentence these young offenders in such a way that they can get out of prison in an appropriate amount of time, if they show can they have matured and been rehabilitated, or remain behind bars, if time shows them to be irreparably corrupt. A sentence of twenty-five years to life gives ample time for either case to come to fruition, while preventing the sentencing court from wrongly assessing someone.  If we continue to allow juvenile offenders to be sentenced to de facto life, we will be ignoring the true intent behind many Supreme Court rulings, which is that kids have the propensity to change, no matter what they may have done previously. 

I am one of those juveniles who has been incorrectly labeled as “irreparably corrupt” by the court based upon my crime alone. When presented with over one hundred pages of evidence pertaining to my rehabilitation at my presentencing hearing in 2015, the court downplayed each factor and focused solely upon the details of my crime. For instance, I was enrolled in college courses and working towards an Associate of Arts (AA) degree, as well as having been a member of the Edmonds Community College Honor Roll. Yet, the court held that my educational pursuits were merely an attempt to alleviate boredom. I have since finished my AA degree and am working towards my Bachelor’s. Not once have I thought this merely something to pass the time; becoming educated is simply one step on the long road of bettering myself. 

Also, when presented with evidence of my being in an amazing marriage, the court simply stated that it “didn’t understand that one.” Not only has my wife been nothing but encouraging and inspirational in my every pursuit, but my marriage has been my biggest advancement in experiencing and understanding what a healthy and loving relationship truly is. I lacked that fundamental framework in my youth, and it was one of many important life lessons I needed to learn. Despite it all, the court decided that there would never be enough rehabilitation to safely release me from prison. 

Time after time, I see juvenile offenders labeled as monsters, predictions made that if ever given freedom they would commit more atrocious acts of violence. Such pronouncements amount to fear-mongering and based on studies and my own experience are illogical and untrue. In a national survey conducted by the Sentencing Project in 2012, findings showed that juvenile offenders “tend to act out in the early period of their incarceration, but that this behavior dissipates over time.” This simply bolsters the science behind juvenile brain development upon which so many Supreme Court cases have been founded – that children will grow out of transient immaturity. 

Within my first eight years of incarceration, I had accrued nineteen major infractions for conduct. Back then I was not only trying to survive as a child in an adult system, but also to figure out who I was. By the age of twenty-four, things finally clicked for me and I have been infraction-free ever since, over sixteen years. Most juveniles like myself, who have been incarcerated for two decades or more, have worked hard to grow into responsible and respectful adults, far removed from the children who committed such horrible mistakes. To assume that we are unchanged is simply ignoring science and reality, and does injustice to those of us who chose to better ourselves and not be defined by our crimes. 

So, with all the negative connotations and fears attached to being a current juvenile LWOP offender, I await my impending court date with reservations and doubt. I have no idea how things will go at my next resentencing hearing but I’m expecting the worst, a de facto life sentence. I have done everything within my power to show the court that juveniles truly are redeemable, that we are worthy of a second chance amongst society. I have a lifetime of misery to atone for, and I can only hope to be gifted the opportunity to give back in honor of those who were afflicted by my thoughtless actions. 

Brian Bassett 749363
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe WA 98272-0777

My name is Brian Bassett. I was sent to prison at the age of sixteen. I've spent the last twenty-two years trying to better myself. I've attained an A.A. degree, and am currently in pursuit of my B.A. I've been very happily married since 2010, and hope to one day go home to my wife, where we can spend the rest of our days together.


Bridgeofsighs said...

Hope you get some justice soon, Brian. I think going forward the US simply won't be able to incarcerate so many as it will be too expensive. Never mind the dubious morality involved in locking up children for life.

N Hardt said...

Brian, congratulations on your accomplishment of earning your first degree! Well done.

I hope the courts rule in your favor, I have hopes that your experience will propel you to great things, maybe even bringing to light the flaws in the system towards juveniles.