Young person's hand on chain link, concept of juvenile justice system
Photo by Chatiyanon on iStock

When I first contacted Anthony Willis by phone in late May, he was at an automotive repair shop waiting to pay his bill. There was a hurried excitement to his voice. “This car must know when I’m getting a paycheck,” he told me. 

In his short time out of prison, Willis had already endured a spate of car troubles. “Can you call back tomorrow morning about 8?” he asked. Willis had the essentials in place: a full-time job — first as a valet then as an administrative assistant; a place to live; and a car, for which the repair bills became a quick lesson in how life comes at life’s pace.

I reached Willis the next morning. He was driving home from Fayetteville after spending a few days with his mother. 

“She didn’t want me to leave,” he said. 

This was the first time he had spent more than a day with her since his release. He was headed back to Charlotte, where he’d been living with a former prison volunteer he met while incarcerated. 

But on the way, he had a long overdue appointment with Mecklenburg County Re-Entry Services. He was frustrated that it took two months to get the appointment. 

“It’s not as easy out here as people make it seem,” he said.

In March, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper commuted the sentences of three people convicted of crimes they committed as teenagers. April Leigh Barber, who was convicted at age 15 for killing her grandparents, returned to society to make a life as a free adult after 30 years in prison. After serving 20 years for the murder he committed at age 17, Joshua McKay also was released. And Willis, who served 26 years for the murder of a Fayetteville store owner, found his way with a solid support system of his own making. 

These commutations were recommended by North Carolina’s Juvenile Sentence Review Board and came after years of Supreme Court rulings, academic studies, proposed legislation, changes in law and executive orders aimed at criminal justice reform for those convicted as minors. Willis’ case was the first reviewed. 

Supreme Court weighs in

Now out of prison, Willis finds a life with freedom daunting — much like the legal path that brought him here.

In 2005, the Supreme Court established in Roper v. Simmons that imposing the death penalty on juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The United States was the only country in the world that permitted such sentences. 

Five years later, in Graham v. Florida, the court ruled that sentencing youth offenders to life without parole for a non-homicide offense also constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Both Graham and Roper cited neurological science that underscored fundamental differences between the brains of children and adults. 

Then, in 2012, the court decided Miller v. Alabama. The landmark ruling found that life sentences couldn’t be the only sentencing option for juveniles convicted of any crime, even homicide. Children, the ruling argued, lack maturity, are prone to increased impulsivity, are more vulnerable to peer pressure and lack developed moral character. 

In North Carolina, a review board was formed to address the changing tide in juvenile sentencing. 

The state is one of nine states collectively responsible for 80% of the country’s juvenile life-without-parole sentences over the past 30 years. Between 1994 and 2020, there were 94 people serving such sentences in North Carolina, according to researchers from the Just Sentencing Project and Duke University. Of those, 49 people were still serving those sentences in 2020. 

Cumberland County, where Willis is from, has sentenced 11 juveniles to life without parole since 1994, more than any of the other 99 counties in the state. 

At the beginning of 2020, a total of nearly 1,500 people in the U.S. were serving juvenile life without parole sentences, according to The Sentencing Project.

North Carolina’s board meets four times each year to review the sentences of juveniles with long prison terms who have already served many years. Eligible people are able to submit a petition to the board for consideration. 

After review, the board makes recommendations to the governor: immediate release, release at a later date, a shorter sentence, a change from a life sentence without parole to life with the opportunity for parole, or no change at all.

‘Miracles do happen’

When I last spoke to Willis, he told me the re-entry workers were apologetic about the difficulty in scheduling an appointment with them. 

“They said they dropped the ball and couldn’t find a record of my incarceration. I assured them that I had served the time.” 

But after the meeting, he was encouraged. The workers were able to connect him with a community organization to help find a new place to live. Willis said he hoped to have his own home soon.

I asked him what his thoughts had been as cases about juvenile sentencing came before the Supreme Court. 

“I didn’t think much about it,” he said. “Nine times out of 10, [new laws] are not going to pass.” 

When the court heard Miller, he felt real hope for the first time. 

As a result of Miller, incarcerated men and women around the country, who were convicted of crimes as juveniles and sentenced to life without parole, filed for review hearings. They encountered years of legal delays.

Willis didn’t receive his hearing until 2018. He had spent years preparing for a chance at a freedom that he was unsure would ever come. He kept a clean disciplinary record. He took class after class, earning multiple associate degrees and a bachelor’s degree, mailing his certificates of completion to his case analyst in Raleigh.

“I just wanted them to know my name, to know that I’m here,” he said. 

At his Miller hearing, his sentence was changed to allow for parole. The review board’s decision was based, among other factors, on his record in prison as well as his perceived readiness to succeed back in society. 

Willis is confident in his ability to make a life in the free world. There’s good reason to believe in his chances. One 2020 study by Montclair State University followed the cases of 174 juveniles sentenced to life without parole and subsequently released. Of the 174, only two were again convicted of any new offense, a recidivism rate of just 1.1%.

“The key takeaway from our work is that releasing individuals — specifically those individuals who have served long sentences and are most often older than 40 to 50 years old — does not seem to have a negative impact on public safety,” said Tarika Daftary-Kapur, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of justice studies at Montclair State. 

Willis is now focused on advocacy. 

During the few days he spent with his mother, he took an afternoon to meet with Barber, one of the other juvenile lifers released in March. They talked about how to help others still seeking commutation. 

Willis has a message for those who are still waiting: “Anything can happen. I’m a believer, and I give all the credit to God, all the glory to God. Miracles do happen, and I’m proof of that.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Caddell Kivett

Caddell Kivett is a staff writer and former assistant editor for The Nash News, a quarterly publication at Nash Correctional Institution in Nashville, N.C. Kivett is a founding member of the Committee of Incarcerated Artists and Writers, a group that uses written word and art to imagine a different idea of justice in the United States.