Tino Wedlow’s future ended in 1989, when at 17 years old he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. After exhausting the appeal process, there was nothing left for him but to slowly age to death.
Finally, a recent major court decision opened the door to possible freedom for Wedlow and other Missourians who were sentenced to life without parole before they were old enough to vote. It also shined a light on how — despite a Supreme Court ruling that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles are cruel and unusual — authorities have been slow in granting those prisoners their chance at freedom.
Wedlow, now 46, was sent away at a time when prison sentences — and prison populations — were skyrocketing. In 1992, there were about 12,500 people serving life without parole in the United States. By 2017, there were 53,000, including 2,200 who were convicted as children. These lengthy sentences for violent offenses are a major driver of mass incarceration.
Then a series of groundbreaking Supreme Court rulings rolled back the sentences that can be given to children. In 2012, Miller v Alabama banned mandatory sentencing schemes that give children life without parole. In 2016, Montgomery v Louisiana ruled that people already serving such sentences — such as Wedlow — must be given a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release.”
Get Talk Poverty In Your Inbox
“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the 2012 ruling. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”
To comply with the ruling, the Missouri legislature passed a law allowing Wedlow and about 90 others to petition for parole after 25 years. It instructed the parole board to consider specific factors at hearings for this group, including growth and rehabilitation, age and maturity at the time of the crime, and “the defendant’s background, including his or her family, home, and community environment.”
Wedlow watched the news about the decision on his cell mate’s television. “I was like, ‘Wow. God is good,’” he recalled. “That ruling gave all of us hope.”
But as Missouri’s juvenile lifers began going before the parole board in 2016, they were almost uniformly denied. At Wedlow’s February 2017 hearing, he was asked about the details of his 1989 crime for about 10 minutes over video conference. Afterwards, he received a one-page, boilerplate denial form stating his release “would depreciate the seriousness of the present offense.” His next hearing was set for February 2022 — five years in the future.
In May 2017, four Missourians serving juvenile life without parole who were similarly denied filed a federal class action lawsuit, alleging that this treatment was not what the Supreme Court had in mind when it ruled that those imprisoned as children deserve a chance at release. This October, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey agreed, giving the Missouri Department of Corrections until Dec. 11 to come up with a plan that “should include revised policies, procedures, and customs designed to ensure that all Class members are provided a meaningful and realistic opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”
“Obviously, we’re really excited,” said Amy Breihan, Director of the St. Louis office of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, which represented the incarcerated plaintiffs. “This has been a long battle in Missouri to get some semblance of justice for these folks.”
However, Breihan noted that in Missouri, “It’s far from the end of the case.” She and her clients are waiting to see what remedy the Department of Corrections proposes by the deadline. “My hope is what that means is the board can no longer deny parole to these individuals based solely on the circumstances of the offense,” she said. “That’s something our clients have been saying all along doesn’t make sense in light of the spirit and language of Miller, and it doesn’t make sense to us either.” Earlier this month, Laughrey granted Breihan and her clients permission to create and file their own, competing plan for getting Missouri into compliance with the Supreme Court rulings.
“Compliance with Montgomery has varied significantly around the country,” the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth reported in January. “Whether an individual serving [juvenile life without parole] has a meaningful opportunity for release depends foremost on the state in which he or she was sentenced.” In New York, a similar ongoing federal suit alleges that the parole board routinely denies release to people sentenced as children, in defiance of the Supreme Court rulings.
Wedlow hopes that at his next hearing, the parole board will be required to consider his successful prison record, the classes he has taken, and mitigating factors of his crime, including his age and family life. Wedlow entered foster care when he was seven, after a child care worker responding to a domestic violence report found food-bare cabinets filled with cockroaches, urine-soaked mattresses, and piles of reeking dirty clothes. At 16, after he refused to live with his mother at a family friend’s house, a juvenile court determined that his behavior was “injurious to his welfare” and he was sent to juvenile detention school, despite not being charged with any crime.
People whose early life looks like Wedlow’s are disproportionately likely to wind up incarcerated. Last March, the Brookings Institution linked incarceration records and IRS records, finding that boys born into households earning in the bottom 10 percent of income earners are 20 times more likely to be in prison in their early 30s than boys born into the top 10 percent. And these economic disparities have knock-on effects: According to an Equal Justice Initiative report from before the Supreme Court rulings, “kids who cannot afford competent counsel face a dramatically escalated risk of being sentenced to die in prison.”
If released, Wedlow plans to live in a halfway house and work for a family friend until he can save enough money to move into a one-bedroom apartment in a low-crime area outside Kansas City. He also wants to take night classes to get a trade job. And he looks forward to meeting his four nieces and nephews in person for the first time. His sister — who was just six when he went away — has never been able to bring them, since he is allowed just three visitors at a time.
Wedlow believes that if the parole board considers his background and circumstances, they will let him go: “Once they look at that and see that I was never in juvenile for no crime, that I was physically and verbally neglected and abused as a child, and in and out of foster care — not for juvenile delinquency but for my own safety and welfare — they’ve got to give me a date.”