By Margo Kirchner
Advocates converged on the Capitol in Madison on Thursday to lobby for an end to life-without-parole sentences for juveniles and a parole opportunity for all juvenile offenders currently sentenced to life or extreme terms of years.
Organized by the Wisconsin Alliance for Youth Justice (WAYJ), the lobby day consisted of a panel discussion in the morning and meetings with legislators and legislative staff members during the afternoon.
Contemplated legislation would allow someone sentenced to life or a life-equivalent term of years at age 17 or younger to petition for parole after 15 to 20 years, depending on the crime of conviction. The proposed legislation would not release anyone automatically. It would create an opportunity for parole consideration. The petition would go back to the sentencing court for consideration rather than to the parole commission.
Supporters discussed the need to provide hope for incarcerated juvenile lifers and motivation for them to make necessary changes in their lives and behavior during custody.
Preston Shipp, senior policy counsel at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY), moderated the panel addressing why Wisconsin should end life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. Shipp noted that 28 states plus the District of Columbia have abolished life-without-parole sentences for youth. Illinois, Minnesota, and New Mexico passed their bans just this year; Texas did so 10 years ago.
Shipp noted that the recidivism rate for juvenile lifers released on parole is just 1%.
Wisconsin Justice Initiative board member Roy Rogers was one of five panelists. Rogers was sentenced to life and entered adult prison at age 16. Based on eligibility set by his sentencing judge, Rogers became eligible for parole after 26 years. He was granted parole in 2021, after about 28 years in custody.
Rogers discussed how his life turned around soon after he entered prison when he joined the “Reach Out” program at Columbia Correctional Institution. He says that the Reach Out redemption group and Jesus Christ saved him. Through the group he began advising other youth on how to avoid the mistakes he made and how to avoid prison.
Today, Rogers is a data solutions processor for a marketing experience company as well as a pre-entry and re-entry liaison for The Community, a nonprofit helping to prepare and assist those released from prison in adjusting to life outside. He is also a church musician. He continues to counsel and mentor at-risk youth.
Craig Sussek, another panelist, discussed his entry into the Wisconsin prison system as a teenager and his view of himself then as a worthless person with nothing to lose. That outlook led to prison behavior issues.
Sussek’s turnaround began when the woman he shot visited the prison to meet him. She told him that he had been a kid who made a bad decision and that she forgave him. She said she believed his life had value that he was worthy.
Sussek was released on parole a few years ago. He obtained a job quickly after his release and recently married. He noted how he is on his “third life”: life before prison, life in prison, and life now.
Panelist Mary Rezin, whose mother and brother were murdered by two teens in 1999, discussed her advocacy on behalf of the younger teen, who was 16 at the time of the crime. Rezin initially viewed him as a “monster,” but after 16 years of mourning, anger, and depression she contacted a restorative justice program at the University of Wisconsin Law School to see if she could meet with him. The program prepared the two separately for about a year and then facilitated a meeting.
Rezin found that he was a changed person, far from the person she remembered or imagined. He had been on drugs and alcohol at the time of the crime and was misled by an 18-year-old as to where they were going and what would happen there.
Rezin now advocates for his release. She said she now views him as someone who made bad mistakes as a teenager, as many people do. She believes he has been rehabilitated and that 24 years is enough punishment.
Ellie Reid, whose father was murdered by her then-16-year-old brother, discussed the complicated existence of being a victim of a heinous crime as well as a family member of the juvenile lifer who committed it.
She discussed how the question needs to be “who has this person become?” Her brother, still in prison, became a welder and trains therapy dogs.
Donnell Drinks, leadership development and engagement coordinator for CFSY, rounded out the panel. Drinks, from Pennsylvania, was sentenced to death, which was later reduced to life. He was 17 at the time and spent 27 years in prison before his release, following rehabilitation in prison. He discussed how juveniles in prison can mature into people who can help society, who come out with a purpose and who can help children today avoid bad decisions.
Shipp opined that imposing life-without-parole sentences on children places all the blame on the children while taking blame off of society for failing those children.
When Shipp asked Rogers and Sussek what they need from the community today, they noted the need for mental health understanding and emotional support. Rogers pointed to his desire for people to ask more than surface questions about his wellbeing. He is trying to do that for those who are getting out of prison. Sussek noted how he and others who have been released from prison “go through things we don’t tell you about.”
Following the talk and a lunch break, organizers walked panelists and about 40 attendees through messaging, handouts, and tips for their lobbying efforts. Messaging and handouts included information regarding the end of life-without-parole sentences in other states and the nationwide movement toward treating convicted children differently than adults.
Organizers also announced that over the lunch hour Sen. Jesse James (R-Altoona) and Rep. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville) agreed to sponsor the proposed legislation.
Panelists and attendees then spent two hours meeting with legislators and legislative staff in offices at the Capitol.
Some system-impacted attendees, visiting the Capitol for the first time, marveled at the building and expressed how they never imagined they would be there.
Executive director Margo Kirchner joined Rogers for the WAYJ lobby day on behalf of WJI.
In a series of cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has accepted science regarding adolescent brain development and the differences between children and adults regarding impulse control and culpability. The court has pared down the use of life without parole for juveniles and discussed constitutional protections that limit sentencing a child a child to die in custody. For those under age 18, the supreme court has banned the death penalty, life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide crimes, and mandatory life-without-parole sentences.
Photographs by Margo Kirchner and Roy Rogers
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