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Simpson speaks out on Supreme Court case
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Simpson speaks out on Supreme Court case

Former senator recounts youthful errors in arguing for juvenile parole option

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CODY -- The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday about whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence certain juvenile offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In the days leading up to Monday's session, a host of public policy advocates and former juvenile offenders spoke to the news media about the need to offer a second chance to some young people who later become reformed adults.

"I was just dumb and rebellious and stupid. And a different person," said one reformed offender, who was 17 when he used a firearm in the commission of a federal crime, ending up on two years of closely supervised probation.

"You're not who you are when you're 16 or 18. You're dumb and you don't care, and you think you're eternal," said the man, who also spent time in jail after assaulting a police officer.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson has never made a secret of what he calls "all the dumb things I did" in high school and college, which include shooting mailboxes in Cody and spending a night in a Laramie jail after slugging a cop.

But he has been exceptionally candid recently in conversations with reporters from across the country, speaking out against what he considers the unconstitutional practice of locking up for life non-homicide juvenile offenders.

"I know I'll get criticism," Simpson said of his support for the appeal, which involves two men who are now adults, but who were juveniles when they "did some pretty hideous and grotesque things."

Terrance Jamar Graham pleaded guilty to trying to rob a restaurant when he was 16, and was convicted a year later of a home invasion robbery. Joe Harris Sullivan was 13 when he raped a 72-year-old woman.

Both were sentenced by Florida judges to life in prison without the possibility of parole, a punishment their attorneys are asking the Supreme Court to rule cruel and unusual, and therefore unconstitutional.

"We're not talking about just letting them out. We're talking about looking it over carefully and saying in each case whether there is a chance here that this person can go on with his life at 30, 40 or 50 years old," Simpson said in a telephone interview.

Simpson said he decided to speak out on the issue after he and many other high-profile former youthful offenders were contacted by attorneys for Graham and Sullivan.

Along with an actor, a poet, a former federal prosecutor, a software executive and others -- all former juvenile offenders -- Simpson shared his criminal background in a legal brief in support of Graham and Sullivan.

He also wrote an opinion piece on the issue published last month in The Washington Post, saying that when "a young person is sent 'up the river,' we need to remember that all rivers can change course."

Simpson said that society bars juveniles from voting, drinking, smoking or serving on juries because they lack the judgment and experience of adults, and that the criminal justice system also had a long history of treating them differently.

But it was in the 1980s and '90s, during his time in the U.S. Senate, when Simpson saw a rising movement by voters and legislators to push judges to crack down harder on young offenders. Mandatory sentencing rules, including for juveniles, were enacted.

"Well, legislators are not supposed to be judges. Those are two branches of government that are separate for a reason," he said.

After hearing the stories of some other reformed former juvenile offenders during the past few weeks, Simpson said he realized once again how his life could have gone in a different direction, and how some deeply troubled young people can still find redemption despite great disadvantages.

He singled out R. Dwayne Betts, now a critically acclaimed poet and teacher in Washington, D.C., who was sentenced as a juvenile for carjacking and robbery.

"It was just fascinating to hear his story. My story is peanuts. Mine is a sparrow belch in a typhoon compared to what this guy had to go through," Simpson said.

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