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Ramsey and Vincent: Give youth offenders a second chance at freedom

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Behind bars

Decades ago, we committed rash but serious crimes that landed us in prison as children. Ed Ramsey grew up in Kansas City in 1980s, in a community where role models encouraged young men to pursue criminal behavior rather than education. Michael Vincent grew up in neighborhoods in north St. Louis, where drugs and violence were prevalent, bouncing around between 13 different schools before dropping out before high school. As kids, we were mandatorily sentenced to life without parole, without consideration of our youth or any other mitigating evidence.

But our crimes do not define us. We are living proof that hope is not lost for children who commit even very serious crimes. Kids change and grow. We are grateful that we had the opportunity to prove this to the Missouri Parole Board, and are now home and able to give back to our community as a result. We are writing this op-ed in hopes that other people imprisoned as kids might be given the same opportunity to show they have changed and deserve a second chance.

A Supreme Court ruling in 2012 made mandatory life without parole sentences for children unconstitutional, and the Missouri Legislature passed a law making us parole eligible at 25 years. Thanks to that change in the law, and the advocacy of the MacArthur Justice Center, we were given an opportunity to demonstrate our rehabilitation and readiness for release.

For the first time, we got to present mitigating evidence about our youth at the time of the crime, and evidence about how we have grown and matured since, including opportunities we took advantage of opportunities in prison to help other people. Ed was a hospice worker for over 16 years, comforting incarcerated patients in their dying moments. And he cofounded a program that ran group counseling sessions with at-risk teens. For Michael, his participation in the intensive therapeutic community was life-changing.

After completing this intensive, strict program, he went on to teach classes on subjects such as anger management.

The parole board acknowledged our growth and development, and we finally got to go home. Ed was released in December 2021, after 33 years in prison. Michael was released in October 2020, after 31 years and 10 months.

Transitioning back into the community was a welcomed challenge. Ed found opportunities to mentor young athletes as they navigate the struggles of being a teenager in Kansas City.

Michael found steady work at a chemical plant, where he excels, and he continues to find joy reconnecting with his family. Both men have a newfound appreciation for everyday life. Last session, the Missouri Legislature expanded parole eligibility to all juvenile offenders after 15 years, recognizing that children deserve this same second chance at freedom.

We are a living example of what scientific and statistical studies tell us about kids who commit crimes. Because of their still-developing brains, adolescents are more likely to engage in short-sighted, impetuous behavior, especially in a social situation. But kids age out of criminal behavior. In fact, people sentenced to lengthy prison terms for crimes committed as children show the lowest risk of recidivism.

None of this is an excuse for the harms we caused — harms that had a ripple effect for countless people whose lives we touched. Being sorry about what we did is not enough. Instead, a long time ago we dedicated our lives to help others — not to try to undo what we did, but in hopes of steering other young people in a direction where there would be no more victims.

It does a disservice to our communities to keep people in prison when they are ready and able to safely return to society. The Supreme Court held that life sentences are excessive for all but the rarest juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption, rather than transient immaturity.

Now, Missouri wants to take away this second chance for nearly 200 juvenile offenders. But the Supreme Court case law tells us that all children deserve a meaningful chance for release from prison when they have demonstrated their growth and maturity. We encourage you to call your representative and ask them to ensure children aren’t thrown away for life. Lawmakers should vote no on Senate Bill 664.

Ed Ramsey and Michael Vincent were both formerly incarcerated on life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as kids.

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