JLWOP is personal to me and it’s wrong

Youth Justice | 10/15/2021

Del Collins
Advocate

For me, the issue of children in our state being sentenced to Juvenile Life without Parole (JLWOP) is personal. I would like children in Indiana to never have to face this sentence because it doesn’t account for the fact that children can change. It doesn’t take into consideration that a child’s brain isn’t fully developed. It simply throws away lives and names them unredeemable. While I know that a child must be 16 and must commit a serious crime to receive this sentence, I also know what it is like behind the walls of our prisons. And I know firsthand that people, and especially children, can change.

I knew and was friends with Paula Cooper, who was at one time sentenced to JLWOP in Indiana for murder. She’s a big reason that our laws changed. Before Paula, a person didn’t have to be 16 to get this sentence.

I met her while I was at Indiana Women’s Prison and we crossed paths and remained close later, at Rockville, too. We still talked, even after her sentence changed and she was eventually released -- up until she took her own life.

I am not saying Paula was wrongfully convicted. She did what she did, which was an awful crime that took a life. I’m not saying that children who commit serious crimes shouldn’t be punished. However, I do believe her original sentence was too harsh. I hate to think that any child in our state could ever face that sentence again. I saw firsthand what it did to my friend, Paula. I also knew a side of Paula the outside world didn’t get to see.

I can tell you, from my personal relationship with her, that Paula often felt hopeless. On top of her sentence, she never forgave herself for her crime and her trauma. She used to get so much hate mail and it really affected her.

Because I took the time to get to know the person she had become, I can say with certainty that she wasn’t bad and should have never been labeled irredeemable — or given such a cruel sentence originally. The person I knew wasn’t the little girl who was going to make those mistakes again. It seemed like the world had permanently labeled her a monster, but the person I knew would have given you the shirt off her back. She was kind and caring, wanting and willing to help those around her. I never understood how the world could continue to paint her in such an ugly way. To me, she was living proof that people, especially kids, can change.

When Paula committed her crime, she was a child. Her brain was not fully developed, and she had been through a lot in her short life.

This session, I really want to see our lawmakers abolish JLWOP. It’s cruel and unusual. It’s wrong.

If you agree, please join me in the movement right now. I shared my testimony and joined over 700 other advocates who emailed lawmakers last legislative session and I believe that it helped SEA 368 pass. This bill was an amazing first step because it ended some of the harmful practices and policies in our youth justice system, such as banning the jailing of minors in adult facilities pre-trial. But there is more work to be done. This legislative session, I hope you’ll take a stand for youth justice reform with me and fight to abolish JLWOP.

JOIN THE MOVEMENT

 

My name is Del Collins. Some of you in this room may have heard me testify last legislative session. I was really glad that SEA 368 passed. It was a huge step taken in the right direction for youth justice. I think the people in this room can continue to make positive changes for youth facing our justice system – and I hope you do. I plan to speak twice today, but my first comments are about Juvenile Life Without Parole.

Many of you know the sugar-coated version of what happens inside the walls of a detention center—inside the walls of a jail. I know what it is actually like. I tell you this because when I share more of my story with you today, I really hope you’ll listen.

I knew and was close with Paula Cooper, who was at one time sentenced to Juvenile Life Without Parole in Indiana. I met her while I was at Indiana Women’s Prison and we crossed paths and remained close later, at Rockville, too. We still talked, even after she was eventually released -- up until she took her own life.

Before I go on, I do want you all to know that I am not saying Paula was wrongfully convicted, she did what she did. But I do believe her original sentence was too harsh and I would hate to think that any child in our state could ever face that sentence again. I saw firsthand what it did to my friend, Paula. I also saw a side of Paula the outside world didn’t get to.

I can tell you, from my personal relationship with her, that Paula often felt hopeless. On top of her sentence, the way she never forgave herself for her crime and her trauma--she used to get so much hate mail.

Because I took the time to get to know the person she had become, I can say with certainty that she wasn’t bad and should have never been labeled as irredeemable — given such a cruel sentence originally. The person I knew wasn’t the little girl who was going to make those mistakes again. It felt like the world had painted her into a permanent monster, but the person I know would have given you the shirt off her back. She was kind and caring, wanting and willing to help those around her. I never understood how the world could continue to paint her in such an ugly way. To me, she was living proof that people change – Kids change especially.

When Paula committed her crime, she was a child. Her brain was not fully developed, and she had been through a lot in her short life. Our system should be set up to help kids –not to condemn them for life. I mean –let that sink in –life. Life spent 24 hours a day behind bars. Life being institutionalized. Maybe making 13 cents an hour doing a job, feeling hopeless and never getting the chance to prove you have changed.

This legislative session, I really hope you abolish Juvenile Life Without Parole. In order to understand how awful this sentence really is for a child – a child the world has deemed as hopeless – you would have to put yourself in those shoes. I’ve been there—behind the same bars as Paula. I have been rehabilitated. I know how much I have and continue to make my life different. I have changed for the better. I know I have a life to live and something to lose. Children can change if they are given the right supports, encouragement and understanding.

Juvenile Life Without Parole is cruel and wrong. Please make sure this sentence will not be given to an Indiana child ever again. Thank you.

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