The Supreme Court ruled that life without parole for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional.
Photo by Joshua Woods on Unsplash

Chris Jacobs was 16 when he robbed a store. The man with him shot someone to death there, later took a plea bargain, and became eligible for parole in December 2020. 

Jacobs, however, is now in his 27th year of a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

In 2012, he was working a canteen job at Lanesboro Correctional Institution when he heard that the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case called Miller vs. Alabama. The court ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. Jacobs closed the window to his store and cried.

“For the first time I thought, ‘I’m getting out of prison,’” he recalled. 

Jacobs and I recently sat down in a small, dusty classroom at Nash Correctional Institution. He had just graduated summa cum laude from the North Carolina Field Minister Program, a four-year college program offering incarcerated men an accredited bachelor’s degree in pastoral ministry. He is steeped in knowledge about cases like his. “Children are different [even] when their behavior mirrors adult behavior,” he said. “Their ability to evaluate is different. So, as a society, we must have a different rubric.” 

The studies that led to the Supreme Court decision suggest Jacobs is right. Neuroscientists say adolescents who commit crimes may be less criminally culpable than adults, yet laws and policies have been slow to catch up to the science.

In 2013, Jacobs filed what’s known as a Miller review of his sentence. But a series of legal and bureaucratic delays ensued. For one, neither the North Carolina courts, nor Indigent Defense Services — the state agency responsible for appointing counsel to defendants who can’t afford to hire their own — were prepared to address the hundreds of Miller reviews that came in. Jacobs’ case was scheduled for December 2020, but many courts were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, there were more pandemic-related delays. The hearing is still pending.

‘One chance to file’

North Carolina is one of nine states collectively responsible for 4 in 5 of the juvenile life without parole sentences handed down over the past three decades. Since 1994, Cumberland County has sentenced more juveniles to life without parole than any of the other 99 counties in the state. 

One of them is Doan Nguyen.

Nguyen came to the United States with his parents when he was 8 years old, speaking no English. As a teenager, he says, he was bullied and threatened by an older teen from his neighborhood. “I was never a troublemaker,” Nguyen said, “but I made a terrible decision.” In 2003, at age 17, he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole in the other teen’s death. Like Jacobs, Nguyen is also imprisoned at Nash Correctional Institution.

In January 2018, Nguyen, by then 33 years old, was the first person from Cumberland County to return to court for a Miller review. At the hearing, an independent doctor praised his “numerous attempts to further his education and better himself” and called him “a low risk for future violence.” His sentence was converted, and he is eligible for parole next October; he will be 38 years old.

Nguyen is now preparing to file his petition with the Juvenile Sentence Review Board. His pro bono advocate helping him through the process tells him not to rush: “You only get one chance to file, and we want to see how other cases go and get it right.”

In the meantime, Nguyen has a strict self-care regimen and looks like a personal trainer. “The reason I exercise like I do is to prolong my time on this earth. I got locked up at a young age and have not experienced a lot in life. I want to achieve some milestones. I want to experience the best moments of life. Right now, I want time to speed up. But I know there’s going to be a time, when I’m out, that I’ll want time to slow down.”

Waiting for Freedom

Anthony Willis, also from Cumberland, had his Miller review in 2018. Willis had spent his years preparing for a freedom he was not sure would ever arrive. He kept a clean disciplinary record, took class after class, and mailed 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 told me. His life sentence was changed to allow for parole.

In March 2022, Jacobs heard the news that North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper commuted the sentences of three people convicted of crimes committed as juveniles. One of them was Willis. For Jacobs, the news was bittersweet. In October 2021, with the help of an advocate, Jacobs had filed a petition with the Juvenile Sentence Review Board. According to Jacobs, his was one of the first cases to be reviewed. He believes he was recommended for clemency but, because his Miller hearing was still pending, the governor delayed his response.

“I was happy for those individuals,” Jacobs said. Had his Miller hearing been held on any of the scheduled dates over the past decade, he might be free today too.

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.