What were you doing when at 16 years old? Getting a driver’s license? Going to school and hanging out with friends? Or planning annual family trips to countries around the world? For Michael Vincent, however, his sixteen means going to prison with the possibility that he will never be able to live a life outside the walls.
Growing up, Michael’s parents were not around. His father was largely absent while his mother, who gave birth to him when she was only 14 years old, struggled with her own addiction. Growing up on the street, Michael spent his most of time hanging out with other kids in the neighborhood. When Michael was only 15 years old, a rash crime landed him a sentence of life without parole at the Missouri State Penitentiary. “It was scary,” Michael said when asked to describe what the experience was like. Being around more than 2000 men in prison, Michael was told that he must fight in order to survive. “It was bad. It was real bad,” Michael said. “I had to take one day at a time and keep my eyes open because any moment, anything could happen.” Michael soon realized that this stark reality was his life now.
In 2012, the U.S Supreme Court (Miller v. Alabama) banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles. In Montgomery v. Louisiana, a 2016 decision, ensures that the Miller decision applies retroactively. As a result, states that had sentenced kids to this unconstitutional extreme sentence had to either re-sentence them or give them a meaningful and realistic chance for release on parole.
Michael was shocked when he first heard the news about the Supreme Court case regarding life sentences for juveniles. “It was a sudden relief. Michael said. “I actually shed tears in my cell. It was tears of excitement.”
In Missouri, the victory wasn’t immediately felt. Missouri was one of several states that had been sentencing teens to die behind bars without any individualized consideration of their youth or ability to be rehabilitated. Following the Supreme Court decision, the Missouri Supreme Court, denied re-sentencing hearings for youth impacted by Miller. Instead, the legislature relegated them to the Missouri Parole Board, making every youthful prisoner serving a mandatory JLWOP sentence eligible for parole after serving 25 years in prison. In Brown v Precythe, the MacArthur Justice Center filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Missouri Parole Board’s demonstrated abuse of power, disregard for due process and failure to comply with state and federal law when it comes to youthful offenders previously given mandatory life without parole sentences.
“The Brown decision is critically important because it ensures that Miller’s guarantee of a meaningful opportunity for release does not ring hollow in the State of Missouri,” said Missouri Co-Director Amy Breihan. “We are so happy for Michael as he begins this next chapter of his life.”
Michael was one of the nearly 100 individuals, sentenced to life behind bars as children, and one of the dozens who, since the change in the law, have been considered for parole release after serving 25 years of their sentence. In October 2020, Michael Vincent got a new chance at life as a free man.
After spending 30 years behind bars, Michael said that he is no longer the person he was when he first came to prison. “At that age, [I] would not think about the consequences,” Michael said. “And then once you grow old and realize that I am maturing from a child to a man, and now is the time to put away childish things.”
“The second chance at life is a beautiful thing for me,” Michael said. He is savoring all the “firsts” he’s finally able to experience. “After so many years, now at 46, it’s my first time ever doing [so much],” Michael said. “But I smile about it.”
For young Michael, who grew up getting used to life on the street, there seemed to be only one way to live his life. But now, as he starts the new chapter of his life, he admits that his thinking has fundamentally changed. “It is not one way at all,” Michael said. “It is so many ways and so many ways to be successful without doing a negative thing.”
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled
The brain does not fully develop until the mid-20s.
Seventy percentof all children sentenced to LWOP in the United States are people of color.
Only in the US
Nearly 80 percent
At least 25 states have banned