Stevenson: I started representing children on death row 20 years ago, and I was struck by how desperately they wanted and needed mentoring, parenting, guidance. They were in every sense of the word “kids,” and that surprised me initially. . . . What I saw was that not only were they vulnerable and disabled and exposed in ways that adult clients weren’t, but they were also responsive in ways that adult clients weren’t. . . . The second thing was just seeing how exposed kids are in the adult system, how victimized, how brutalized.
Have you ever come face to face with a victim of one of your clients?
Tragically, I know more about victimization than I wish I knew. My grandfather was murdered when I was 16 by juveniles, four kids in a low-income project in south Philadelphia. Members of my immediate family have dealt with very serious crimes. It’s not a lack of awareness. We spend a lot of time with victims of violent crime. . . . I think we should be doing something radically better by people who are victimized by violent crime. But what we’ve done in the last 30 years is promised them revenge, mostly; we promised them blood and executions and extreme punishments.
We do very poorly in providing them with counseling and support and recovery or the promise of a new society where there’s going to be less crime because we’re doing something constructive to help people who are at risk or hopeless or marginalized.
I also think that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. And if we don’t commit in a complete way to justice for everybody, we risk perpetuating the dynamics that have been so injurious to American progress. And I do believe we should spend a lot more time thinking about how we treat people who are disadvantaged and disfavored in evaluating our progress, our decency, our character, because, ultimately, that’s how we’re going to be judged.
If a juvenile has committed the most heinous of crimes and the jury has adjudicated that individual guilty, why is it offensive to the Constitution for that juvenile to be subjected to a mandatory life without parole?
Children are different than adults. We recognize that children need extra protection. Their maturity, their judgment, their development doesn’t permit us to treat them like adults. That’s the reason why we don’t let even the smartest kids smoke or drink or vote or drive cars before they’re eligible.