Antonio Espree’s ear-to-ear smile is the biggest I’ve ever seen. It nearly outshines the radiance I heard in his voice over the phone when scheduling the interview for this article. “Anytime. I’m free!” he exclaimed when I asked about a good time to meet.
His freedom has come at a steep price.
His response was loaded with meaning. At 17, when most of his peers were preparing to graduate from high school, a judge was sentencing Espree to natural life in prison without the possibility of parole.
After serving nearly three decades of that time, he stands—a middle-aged man—on the front porch of his attorney’s Ann Arbor, Michigan, home, waiting to greet me as I exit my car. Espree, now 46, is indeed free.
But his freedom has come at a steep price.
Just 45 minutes up the highway is his hometown of Detroit, where a dysfunctional and abusive childhood led to an incident that would rob him of 29 years of his life.
Espree’s story is a textbook case of what can happen when children lack love and attention in an abusive home. And the evolution of his case reflects a nationwide movement to address the way underage offenders are treated in the justice system.
For a teenage Espree, street life provided what home life with parents addicted to drugs and booze did not—the feeling that he mattered. By age 15, he was skipping school and had run away from home.
Within months of being released from a center for delinquent boys, he became involved in drug-related activity that led to a shootout with rivals. A bystander was killed—struck by a bullet from Espree’s gun. And at 16, he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
“I couldn’t comprehend it,” Espree said of his teen years. “I was still thinking ‘I’mma get out.’ I really didn’t understand the magnitude of everything. Somehow I equated prison to the youth home.”
A model in New York, but not in Michigan
Espree is one of 364 individuals who were age 17 or younger when the state of Michigan sentenced them to life without parole. That represents almost 15 percent of the 2,500 juvenile lifers in the United States. Only the state of Pennsylvania has more.
Across the country there is a movement—in communities, in the courts, and in legislatures—to not only raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction and end the practice of trying 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, but also to give second chances to those who’ve served time, or are currently incarcerated.
In New York, where 16-year-olds facing criminal charges are automatically placed in the adult system, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed a bill supporting the Raise the Age campaign, to set the adult criminal responsibility age at 18 and prohibit minors from being held in any adult facility.
Cuomo has also created a youth pardon program for former offenders who committed a nonsexual, nonviolent crime when they were 16 or 17 and who remain conviction-free for at least 10 years.
It takes only two minutes for a kid to get into the kind of trouble that could alter the course of his life.
Recipients of the pardon have their criminal records sealed from the public, creating greater opportunities for them to obtain employment and housing. More than 10,000 people in New York qualify for pardon and more than 100 have received it.
Angel Rodriguez, who’s been working with juvenile offenders in New York City for more than 30 years, said he’s glad that under the Raise the Age bill, 16- and 17-year-old will no longer be held on Rikers Island. “That place is a hellhole for kids,” said Rodriguez, executive director of Avenues for Justice Andrew Glover Youth Program in New York.
Alternative-to-incarceration programs like his have benefited thousands of young people since the late 1980s, when states began cracking down on juvenile crime. And while Avenues’ focus is on incarcerated youth, its work also includes prevention. About 350 youth a year benefit from workshops and education programs that keep them from going to jail.
Espree with a group of University of Michigan students days after his release.
Photo by Ashley Lukas.
It takes only two minutes for a kid to get into the kind of trouble that could alter his life. And with such easy access to drugs and gang violence in inner cities, Rodriguez said, his organization tries to steer kids from such activity.
From getting youth back in school to work training and drug rehabilitation, he said, his agency is helping young people move their lives forward.
“I get a lot of kids out of jail,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s important to society and the system, but I think that prevention is as important as anything else we do.”
Supreme Court rulings pave the way
What’s happening in Michigan, meanwhile, is a model for what states should not do, said attorney Deborah LaBelle, a crusader for that state’s juvenile lifers. “We’ve had some pretty repressive politics here for a number of years that have caused a lot of problems,” said LaBelle. “We’ve actually been pretty recalcitrant to addressing these issues.”
In 2010, LaBelle led an ACLU’s lawsuit against the state of Michigan to overturn the juvenile lifer law. Her case was helped by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling two years later in Miller v Alabama that held that life without the possibility of parole for children constituted cruel and unusual punishment and was unconstitutional.
Despite that ruling, Michigan prosecutors chose to adhere to state law, which restricts the number of juveniles whose cases can be reheard for re-sentencing, and allows for prosecutors to select those cases. It was among several states that refused to rehear cases dating back to before 2012.
Last year, in another landmark case, Montgomery v Louisiana, SCOTUS held that the Miller ruling retroactively applied to all those sentenced prior to 2012. This meant those who had been incarcerated for decades were eligible for re-sentencing. Approximately 2,100 juvenile lifers in 28 states were affected.
“We fail kids and then punish them for our own failures.”
While Michigan county prosecutors have been slow to comply—nearly 300 cases are still in review—LaBelle is banking on a package of bills in the state legislature that would bring quicker results, by raising the age for life sentences to 18 and prohibiting the state from putting youth in adult prisons. It would also prevent youth under 21 from being put in solitary confinement. “So, if you’re going to look at a model, it would be helpful to look at the package of youth bills that Michigan hasn’t voted on yet,” LaBelle said.
If passed and signed into law, LaBelle said, the policies would save money and lives, adding that “we fail kids and then punish them for our own failures.
“It would address the fact that a hugely disproportionate percentage of the youth are youth of color…reflective of who doesn’t have the resources to get out of the harshest sentences,” she said.
Although the future of most of the bills in the package is uncertain, one piece of legislation was signed into law last fall. Senate Bill 251, sponsored by state Sen. John Proos, a Republican, expands diversion opportunities for juveniles in the criminal justice system to more quickly direct them to treatment services. Public Act 185, as it’s called, gives judges the flexibility to find more age-appropriate penalties for young offenders that could enhance and expedite rehabilitation.
“The intent is to allow individuals a second chance,” Proos said. The law allows a judge to decriminalize court proceedings, and ensures victims are notified, in compliance with the Victims’ Rights Act. All parties, “the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, juvenile and the juvenile’s guardian, work together so that [the case] doesn’t become a matter of record,” Proos said.
All public records of the proceedings are destroyed and the state police is given a non-public record of the case. “So, it’s not as if the juvenile isn’t noted as having had a run-in with the law,” Proos said.
It’s not retroactive.
Rehabilitation to re-entry is possible
In response to Miller ruling, Michigan has so far re-sentenced 62 young people and released 15–including Espree.
Things began to turn around for him after he’d served almost 14 years of his life sentence. That’s when he received a letter from LaBelle, accompanied by a questionnaire asking about his background and his case.
While he eventually answered and returned it, “I really wasn’t even interested,” Espree said.
He had been locked up for so long, he said, he couldn’t see how the information LaBelle shared with him about re-sentencing youthful offenders who were serving life sentences could benefit him. The idea of being released from prison seemed surreal.
He recalled five years in when the full meaning of “life behind bars” had first hit him, when older lifers would tell him, “You need to do something with yourself because you got a bit to do in here; you gone die in here.” They would then ask, “How you gone do it?”
He figured it out. Seven years in, he completed his GED. He signed up for every class that he could, including some college courses. He has over 20 certificates of completion. And he read a lot – Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning; Dr. Wayne Dyer, The Power of Intentions, Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness, and others.
Espree pulled from what he read to form curricula for workshops and classes he was called on to facilitate. A Michigan Department of Corrections’ program he’s most proud of facilitating is Cage of Rage, an anger management program. Traditionally, it is designed for white people, but his success in culturally adapting it earned him recognition, he said.
From no chance to a second chance
But one of Espree’s greatest rewards came not from what happened within those prison walls, but from what happened within himself: forgiveness for what he had done 30 years before. First he had to forgive himself, he said. But even more rewarding was the forgiveness from his victim’s family. “It was essential for me to have and receive, and once it happened I was taken in a whole other place,” he said.
His victim’s mother was the first to speak in favor of him being re-sentenced. But the daughter, was initially hesitant. “She hated me,” he said. However, after a lengthy conversation where she shared the hurt and pain of her father’s absence, and how she missed out on so much by not having him in her life, “she wanted to hear about [my] life.”
“I’m trying to be an example because I know juveniles are still stuck in prison.”
In the legal narrative presented to the court to support not just Espree’s re-sentencing but also his release, his victim’s mother said, “I feel sorry for him because I believe he came from a very poor background in which the parents did not take time for him.” She added that while she favored a lengthy incarceration, she envisioned his release, and “hoped he could receive some sort of help that would prevent him from leading a life of crime.”
Espree’s aunt, Evelyn, who tried to get custody of him when he was young, is quoted as saying that, in his childhood, “Antonio didn’t have a chance.”
Espree feels fortunate that LaBelle connected him with attorney Richard Soble, who worked on Espree’s case for four-and-a-half years and allowed Espree to stay at his Ann Arbor home until his parole was reassigned to Arizona, where a cousin lives.
He has spent almost every day of his freedom speaking to young people, as he awaits acceptance to Arizona State University, where he will participate in a work-study program. He’s been invited to speak at the national convention for The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth in November. He wants to go beyond talking just to teenagers about how to avoid trouble, but to those empowered to help youth steer clear of trouble in the first place. Ultimately, he said, he wants to change legislation at the local, state and federal levels.
“I understand [the] purpose and reason for [my] being free,” Espree said. “I’m trying to be an example because I know juveniles are still stuck in prison because prosecutors…want to keep that natural life sentence on them. Judges don’t want to seem soft. [But] some of these guys have made true transformation…And so if I’m out here being an example, I want some attorney to say Antonio Espree done it, my client can too.”
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield is the executive editor at YES!, where she directs editorial coverage for YES! Magazine, YES! Media’s editorial partnerships, and serves as chair of the YES! Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. A Detroit native, Zenobia is an award-winning journalist who joined YES! in 2016 to build and grow YES!’s racial justice beat, and continues to write columns on racial justice. In addition to writing and editing, she has produced, directed, and edited a variety of short documentaries spotlighting community movements to international democracy. Zenobia earned a BA in Mass Communication from Rochester College in Rochester, Michigan, and an MA in Communication with an emphasis in media studies from Wayne State University in Detroit. Zenobia has also taught the college course “The Effects of Media on Social Justice,” as an adjunct professor in Detroit. Zenobia is a member of NABJ, SABJ, SPJ, and the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. She lives in Seattle, and speaks English and AAVE.