September 23, 2019 | 85° F

MEHTA: Broken justice system owes lifers 2nd chance


Opinion Column: Grass Roots


The oppressor never gives up his power, and in the case of slavery, he never truly did. In a criminal justice system where a Black man is six times more likely to be incarcerated than a white man, where underdeveloped communities have to remain underdeveloped for fear that they will be gentrified and where felony disenfranchisement extends a sentence far beyond being in prison, shackles have become handcuffs and the Constitution still remains merely a suggestion. 

This is clear in the case of Henry Montgomery. 

In his 2016 landmark case Montgomery v. Louisiana, Montgomery's argument led the court to rule that those convicted of murder while juveniles should not necessarily receive life sentences without parole, and it essentially gave those who were facing these punishments a chance at release. Four hundred-fifty people were released, but Montgomery — along with approximately 2,300 others — has not had the same fortune. 

Montgomery was arrested for the killing of a sheriff's deputy who was detaining him for a suspected theft while he was skipping school. He was originally given the death penalty, but that sentence was amended to life without parole.

Montgomery, who needed to have his hearing aid adjusted to hear clearly, was told it was his responsibility to continue to work by his parole board as it decided he had not completed enough educational programs to be granted early release, not considering that he was deemed ineligible to earn his GED when he tried. 

The parole board did not consider his attending of church nor his affiliation with a literacy program to help prisoners write home to their families when it made its decision. When you have to make your case to those who want you to lose, it becomes difficult to claim victory. For the parole board, the fields need to be tended to and human rights can wait. 

We must look at this jurisprudentially, and in doing so, as the court did, we realize the Constitution is a living breathing document. A Black man is no longer worth three-fifths of a person, and no longer has to drink from his own water fountain. What this parole board is doing is using a technicality to suppress the magnitude of the Supreme Court’s ruling, thereby violating the rights of a man who has clearly been rehabilitated, ignoring the purpose of the criminal justice system. 

In doing so, this practice of non-compliance is setting dangerous precedent beyond the court in allowing the unfair and inequitable oppression of those who have not only served their time, but also those who worked to get better. The purpose of the Exclusionary Rule — as provided by the Fourth Amendment — is the deterrence of officers from infringing on the privacy rights of the citizens of the United States, and acknowledging that any misconduct or violation of these rights will lead to not only a bad reflection upon the officers, but an inability to make the arrest as a result of their actions. 

Here, we are seeing a precedent being set where those in the incarceration system, where even those with intent to fully re-enter and contribute to society will have no incentive to do anything meaningful or rehabilitative while in prison because the prospect of a return to society as a taxpayer transforms into a mirage rather than a feasible end.

Truthfully, the treatment of Montgomery comes as no surprise. The level of empathy the oppressor holds for the oppressed never extends beyond the self-interest of the oppressor. Dylann Roof, after massacring 16 people in a church, was granted Burger King following his arrest. After 55 years in incarceration, for committing a crime at the age of 17, Montgomery, at his hearing, had the family of the deputy he killed testify against him. 

“Mr. Montgomery received a life sentence and so will we … I will never get my father back,” said one of the slain officer’s daughters. If and when Montgomery was offered a chance to have witnesses testify in his favor, I truly hope he called Eric Garner, Philando Castile and Trayvon Martin, all of whom could not be reached for comment. 

Rishi Mehta is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in  political science and English. His column, "Grass Roots," runs on  alternate Mondays.

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Rishi Mehta

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