Monday, March 20, 2017

Sharron Townsend: Sentenced to 30 years at age 15

At birth black boys are given two options, they can choose jail or death and two destinations prison or the cemetary. Statistics show that one in 3 African American males will experience incarceration in their lifetime. At age fifteen Sharron's mother gave birth to him in New Jersey. His father has been in and out of jails and prisons his entire life. Growing up Sharron remembers he, his brother and mother living on the streets and when they were able to find housing they always went back and opened their home to allow others in transition to take a shower and often took them food. In one of our many visits inside the Duval County Jail he shared with me that he remembers those times and would have never done something to someone living on the streets. About two weeks ago the defense team put on a very compelling mitigation hearing where Sharron's upbringing and social history was presented in great detail. Neurologist, psychologist and mitigation experts all took the stand explaining to the courts that the frontal lobe of an adolescent preteen is not developed. The frontal lobe helps us make decisions and thus results in "impetuous and ill considered actions and decisions". Simply put children do NOT consider the long term consequences of their immediate actions. They are vulnerable to poor decision making and hanging with the wrong crowd. Society dictates that a normal household contains two equipped working adults in a loving home with a white picket fence a pet dog if you're lucky. Sharron's life and upbringing is so far from the standard of normalcy that to read is unbelievable. He never had a chance from the start. In his early childhood he was labeled as ESE and over medicated for attention deficit disorder. When he didn't have medicine of his own his mother would give him his brothers medicine which was a different brand and dosage. It was suggested that during pregnancy his mother consumed both drugs and alcohol which could have contributed to his brain dysfunction. Experts testified that given a nourishing and loving structured environment that a child like Sharron can rehabilitate. In George Jackson’s Soledad Brother he wrote “There is a species of fly that lives only four hours. If one of these flies was born at twelve o’clock midnight in darkness and gloom, there would be no way possible for him in his lifetime to ever understand the concept of day and light. This is the case with Sharron. It was said at the hearing that the only structure Sharron has experienced has been his almost two year incarceration housed in an adult jail. While incarcerated Sharron has been written up on several disciplinary referrals for fighting, horse playing and even playing in water. In one visit I asked an officer what did he expect from a child locked in a cage to do? As a form of punishment to these referrals a few times Sharron was stripped of his visits and phone calls to call home. Also as a punishment he was placed on twenty three hour lock down and only let out to shower and go to rec alone for one hour. It was during these times that outside of his cell mates and the officers I was the ONLY face he would see for weeks at a time. Every week when we met I encouraged him to behave better and I never allowed him to believe that he was going home but that his attorneys were fighting extremely hard to get him a fair sentence. Every week he bopped or skipped down the hallway to a room and we talked about school, girls, sports, books, his future or whatever was on his mind at the time. I can recall one visit when he made the comment that at sixteen his dad is going to buy him a car and I began to cry because I knew he would not be free at that age to drive a car. I now know that he won’t have the opportunity to finish high school, attend a prom, play high school sports, attend college or have children of his own until he is in his late forties. Today at the sentencing the judge recapped the case and spoke directly to Sharron for nearly twenty minutes. Judge Schemer told him that he knows that it was difficult coming up under those circumstances but when viewing the police interrogation video Sharron showed no remorse or that he was affected emotionally. He told him that not only did he take the life of the victim but part of the lives of his family and friends. Judge Schemer also cited three landmark supreme court cases that explain the differences between children and adults. Roper vs. Simmons (imposes it is unconstitutional for juveniles to receive capital punishment) Graham vs. Florida (prohibits life without parole for juveniles) Miller vs. Alabama (imposes that mandatory life sentences for juveniles violates the 8th amendment) Judge Schemer seemed to be in agreement that kids are different and was even empathetic to Sharron’s learning disability but before handing down his sentence wanted him to understand that mitigation is not justification or an excuse for taking a life. Sharron was sentenced to 30 years today followed by ten years probation. After serving fifteen years his case can be reviewed and if denied it can be reviewed again at twenty five years. Schemer told Townsend “this creates the possibility but does not guarantee that you will have the key to the cell door. Rather that key has anything to do with unlocking that cell door has everything to do with you and your ability to rehabilitate.” I sat in complete horror today as this sentencing was read aloud and the tears began to roll down my face. I have been advocating for young people now for six years and it doesn’t get easier. I have built a bond with Sharron and to me he is just another kid from unfortunate circumstances. The orange jumpsuit has never made me look at him different. I am always asked what if your loved one was the victim? My answer remains the same. I would still want the defendant to have a second chance at life and an opportunity to redeem themselves. My heart was broken today as I watched Sharron be ushered on his journey to prison in handcuffs and shackles. I could only think about what the next 30 years will look like for him. I am only 32 and have only done one thing consistently for 30 years. At fifteen he can't even grasp the concept of what exactly a thirty year sentence means for him. Even after serving the 30 years he will be on probation for an additional ten years for a choice made at age twelve. There is also a false notion that prison rehabilitates which is far from truth. There are very few programs available to those serving lengthy sentences like Sharron. The vocational and educational programs that are available are saved for those who will reenter society. So for someone serving a 30 year sentence they will not be able to take advantage of such programming until the last 5 years of their sentence. I urge all parents to talk to their children about the decisions they make and the crowd they choose to hang around because one poor choice can cost them their entire life. P.S. Never Give Up Hope. Ever. Love #THEHopeDealer

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