Cecil Was Just a Boy

When Cecil went to jail, he was 16. He didn’t come from much money and he could barely read or write. He cared only about himself, and he listened to all the negative influences in his life and ignored the positive ones. He did a very bad thing. He was accused of and pleaded guilty to second-degree rape. He received life with parole. He really didn’t understand what was happening and he barely remembers his lawyer.

That was over 42 years ago. Today, he is a 58-year-old man. North Carolina no longer gives people parole. Instead, we have structured sentencing, which means a person will serve the sentence he or she is given. Under structured sentencing, the most Cecil would receive for the same crime is a little more than ten years. Despite serving four times that amount, the parole board continues to deny him parole.

Cecil remains incarcerated at a low-security prison. Usually, when I visit, elderly men are leisurely strolling around outside or chatting with each other on one of the various benches. They always jovially greet the security guard leading me to the interview spot. One time, a prison staff member commented to me that none of the guys would be a threat to the outside world.

Cecil is usually knee deep in a maintenance project when I arrive. Last time I visited, he was on a ladder and half his body was propelled into the ceiling trying to fix the lights. Everyone I speak with at the prison loves Cecil. He’s always willing to help, they say. He works without any complaints. Everyone knows he’s been in there too long and many hope he’ll be released soon.

Yet, because he’s a sex offender, he gets fewer privileges than the other inmates. “Why don’t you participate in that dog training program?” I asked him once. “Oh, sex offenders aren’t allowed to interact with the dogs.” He responded.

“Why hasn’t Cecil been promoted to a lower security level where he can go out into the community and work?” I once asked a prison staff member. He shrugged and said that they weren’t supposed to recommend that sex offenders go out into the community.

Most of us never did something as bad as Cecil did when we were kids. Most of us probably grew up in better circumstances with resources, role models, and educational opportunities. However, we have all done bad things. I know I have. What if we were all punished for the rest of our lives for the worst thing we ever did as a kid? That’s what’s happening to Cecil.

Today, he has an education. Today, he’s the most skilled maintenance worker in his facility. Cecil went from being told at his sentencing hearing that he would never amount to anything, to believing a prison ministry volunteer who said he could be anything he wanted to be. He gained confidence in himself and even helped mentor many fellow inmates through rough times.

Every time I see Cecil, his smile warms my heart. He’s always excited about something he learned that week in class or at church, or excited about some opportunity he may have when he gets out. It’s never an “if,” but a “when.” He speaks genuinely and from the heart about wanting to work with youthful offenders. He wants to help them before it’s too late and teach them what he has learned over the past 42 years of his incarceration.

But people are scared. Particularly when it comes to sex offenders, many believe that only the most innately evil people can do such a thing, and that there’s no capacity for change. Studies show, however, that individuals who commit sex offenses actually pose a low risk of sexually re-offending.[1] Juveniles found responsible for a sex offense have less than a 3% probability of re-offending as an adult.[2]

Although I wasn’t even born when Cecil committed him crime, I feel certain that he is not who he was 40 years ago. I know that kids can do bad things but turn into productive law-abiding adults. And the sociological and scientific studies back it up.

The United States Supreme Court has cited many of these studies in a compilation of cases involving juveniles. First, in Roper v. Simmons, the Court held that giving juveniles the death penalty is unconstitutional.[3]

The Roper court noted that juvenile offenders are different than adult offenders in three primary ways:.

(1)  First, children have a ‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,’ leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking.

(2)  Second, children ‘are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures,’ including from their family and peers; they have limited ‘control over their own environment’ and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings.

(3)  And third, a child's character is not as ‘well formed’ as an adult's; his traits are ‘less fixed’ and his actions less likely to be ‘evidence of irretrievable depravity.’[4]

Then, in Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court held that sentencing juveniles to life without parole for non-homicide crimes is unconstitutional.[5] Juveniles must be given a meaningful opportunity for release.[6]

But what about juveniles like Cecil who were given life with parole, but who are constantly denied parole?

Just a few years ago, a federal judge in the Eastern District of North Carolina held that “the current North Carolina parole review process for juvenile offenders serving a life sentence violates the Eighth Amendment. . .” ban on cruel and unusual punishment, because it does not provide a meaningful opportunity for release.[7] The attorneys for the juvenile offender showed that the North Carolina Parole Commission was not even considering the age of parole-eligible inmates at the time of the offense. Those who were kids when they went to prison, especially sex offenders, were hardly getting released at all. The parole board mainly focused on the facts of the original crime and on the current age of the offender. Obviously, this focus disfavors juveniles. If a juvenile is sentenced to life with parole at 16, he’s likely to serve much more time than a 50-year-old sentenced to life with parole, for example.

The judge ordered the commission to come up with a plan that will allow juveniles to have that meaningful opportunity to demonstrate maturity and rehabilitation. Now, a juvenile offender has the opportunity to speak with a parole commissioner over a video conference and explain how he has matured and been rehabilitated. Under the old rules, the commission never even spoke with parole-eligible inmates.

In October of last year, I gave a 30-minute presentation to a parole commissioner on why the commission should release Cecil. I was caught off guard when one of the first questions by the parole commissioner was, “So why hasn’t he been released yet?” I believe my honest answer was a confused, frustrated “I don’t know.” I truly don’t. It makes no sense to me. And, isn’t that a question for the parole commission?

On November 8, 2018, Cecil had a 30-minute video conference with another parole commissioner, who complimented him on how well he did.  

Later, Cecil received a letter from the parole commission with the same date (November 8, 2018) denying him parole. None of the reasons for denying him parole even made sense or applied to Cecil.

I was nearly in tears when Cecil called me about the parole board’s decision. I thought he would be angry. I thought he would be crushed. Instead, he was grateful. Grateful how hard I and others had worked for him. He told me he couldn’t change the decision. He could only accept it and move on. When I asked him if I could write a blog post with his name, he told me to go ahead. No one can call him any name that he hasn’t already been called many times before.

I know the conversations our country is having about how we treat sexual assault victims are important. I know someone could dig into the details of Cecil’s case and write a compelling post about how awful the crime was and how it impacted Cecil’s victim. I’ve seen responses like that to litigation we’ve filed in Cecil’s case. I get it.

All I’m trying to say really trying to say is that people can change. Kids can change. I’ve seen it. How long do we punish someone for something they did as a child? What does it say about our society that we lock up our children in cages for life without concern for their rehabilitation? I believe we can do better. We must do better.

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[1] Hanson, RK, Thornton, D, Helmus, L-M, & Babchishin, KM. (2016). What sexual recidivism rates should be associated with Static-99R and Static-2002R scores? Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, 28(3), 218-252; Hanson, RK, & Morton-Bourgon, KE. (2009). The accuracy of recidivism risk assessments for sexual offenders: A metaanalysis of 118 prediction studies. Psychological Assessment, 21, 1-21; Hanson, RK, & Bussière, MT. (1998). Predicting relapse: A meta-analysis of sexual offender recidivism studies. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 66(2), 348-362. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.66.2.348; Hanson, RK, Harris, AJR, Letourneau, E, Helmus, LM, & Thornton, D. (2018). Reductions in risk based on time offense free in the community: Once a sexual offender, not always a sexual offender. Psychology, Public Policy and Law, 24(1), 48-63. doi:10.1037/law0000135.

[2] Caldwell, MF. (2016). Quantifying the decline in juvenile sexual recidivism rates. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law,22(4), 414-426. doi:10.1037/law0000094.

[3] 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

[4] Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 569-70 (2005).

[5] 130 S.Ct. 2011 (2010).

[6] Id.

[7] Hayden v. Keller, 134 F. Supp. 3d 1000, 1011 (E.D.N.C. 2015).