“Please Give Me Just One Chance to Show the World, Man, Like I Can Be Somebody.” — Brett Jones
I’ll cut to the chase by saying upfront that this is a piece about one thing and one thing only: compassion. It’s what undergirds the new consciousness and none of us can be conscious politics practitioners without an intention to be compassionate. So off we go.
I am writing a week or so after reading about Jones v. Mississippi wherein our U.S. Supreme Court said (less than honorably, if you ask me, but I’m no lawyer and I digress) that it is well within the rights of sentencing judges in America to remand juveniles to prison for life without the possibility of parole. A traumatized 15-year-old boy can commit a heinous crime and we say that someone in a robe on a bench can deem that boy irredeemable, no matter what anybody else says, including victims, period end of story. That means we Americans believe that human beings can be irredeemable and that reality stops me in my tracks. Cold.
Brett Jones, who had a chance to address the court in Mississippi in 2015 — after he was re-sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, a gross indignity in and of itself — was quoted as having said to the judge, “Please give me just one chance to show the world, man, like I can be somebody.” I didn’t hear his voice, I didn’t see a picture of him, no YouTube or TikTok videos informed me, and I otherwise knew nothing about him or his case. I just read a sentence he uttered about his sentence and it haunts me still. I hear in that sentence a plea to be heard. “Please…” I hear in that sentence humility. “…just one…” I hear in that sentence resolve and determination. “…show the world…” I hear in that sentence a longing for human connection. “…man…” I hear in that sentence a striving to thrive, like a blade of grass asserting itself through the concrete. “I can be somebody.” I instantly felt and still feel connected to this (now 31-year-old) man and to his humanity. In the judge’s re-sentencing of Jones, on the other hand, I hear only the notion that an American human being can deem another American human being to be irredeemable and that leaves me feeling bereft, empty, and deflated.
Jones was re-sentenced in a way that seemed to violate Mississippi law because of a convoluted issue within an issue. It has to do with creating a distinction within the universe of “juvenile lifers” called “permanently incorrigible.” Those designated as such could be sentenced without the possibility of parole while, ostensibly, the others could not. Jones sued Mississippi for this seeming violation and his case landed in the U.S. Supreme Court. Ten days ago the court said that judges have no constitutional obligation to proffer a “permanently incorrigible” finding in order to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole — and there it is.
I’m writing and thinking, wait, isn’t there already a movement in America creating these stories, infusing our justice system with compassion?
This piece educated me about the case and included more of what Jones said at his re-sentencing: “I’ve pretty much taken every avenue that I could possibly take in prison to rehabilitate myself. I took anger management in prison. I’ve taken trades, got my GED (and) stayed in touch with my family. I’m not the same person I was when I was 15. Minors do have the ability to change their mentality as they get older … all I can do is throw myself at the mercy of the court and in front of the Holy Spirit.”
Sidebar. That article introduced me to the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting (MCIR), founded by investigative reporter and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Jerry Mitchell (whom I do not know). Mitchell himself penned this take on the Supreme Court’s decision and I am calling attention, lending support to, and encouraging support of this type of journalism writ large. It’s critical and essential that we the people broaden our stables of trusted sources of information and maybe you’ll like this one. As MCIR and its peers cultivate new journalists, it’s my hope that just as we see healing journey stories about overcoming cancer or grief or breaking cycles of violence, new journalists will have an abundance of healing journey stories wherein the law itself is creating the healing. And creating healing is what a conscious approach to the law would do. I’m writing and thinking, wait, isn’t there already a movement in America creating these stories, infusing our justice system with compassion?
Cue my brother-from-another-mother, Salomon Zavala, Executive Director of Ollin Law, whose intention is “healing through law.” Imagine that. He quickly affirmed that I knew what I thought I knew, that restorative justice is “an alternative way to deal with social violations (crimes)” that focuses on “healing and restoring versus punishment, that is collaborative versus adversarial,” and that is holistic in terms of its focus on all parties, not just the accused. Then he reminded me that I was the one standing on tables and chairs in backyards and living rooms making the case for restorative justice as a candidate for public office some twenty years ago. Oh yeah. And yet.
For sure, legislators can fix this and all the criminal justice things. Always and especially now. But until and unless we intend compassion at every level — like my friends at Ollin Law — none of it will matter. Until we realize that our willingness to call another irredeemable is only a reflection of our unwillingness to stretch our compassion muscles that much, to open our hearts that much, to love that much, we will not move into the new consciousness. You heard it here first.