Allow children sentenced to life a second chance

When I was 17, I made the worst mistake of my life. I overreacted during an argument and took a man's life.

I am a successful Baltimore businessman and nonprofit leader, but when I was 17, I made the worst mistake of my life. I overreacted during an argument and took a man's life. I was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in Maryland.

I accept full responsibility for my actions and live with the knowledge that I can never restore what was lost.

Sadly, my story that leads to that day is strikingly similar to that of most young people who get into serious legal trouble. As a kid, I experienced almost constant hunger, neglect and physical abuse. In the months that led up to the crime, my grandfather, my only real mentor and source of moral authority, was battling cancer. All of our bills were overdue, and we had just received an eviction notice at our home. My mother, a recovering addict, had recently suffered through a very abusive relationship with her boyfriend, a D.C police officer. He had assaulted both of us several times. He once bashed in her skull so severely that she nearly died, and he pistol whipped me.

By the time of that fateful argument that led to my shooting a man I didn't know, I was experiencing the increased tension and post-traumatic stress syndrome that many researchers say are common among children who are exposed to violence. And despite the gravity of my action, like most children, I possessed a tremendous capacity for change.

Maryland lawmakers are now considering two bills (SB 366 and HB 337) that would provide opportunities for sentence review for people sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole before they were old enough to vote. I am proof that children — even those who commit violent crimes — can be rehabilitated and can make important contributions to our communities. And I am not unique.

After about 18 months behind bars, I wrote "The Master Plan," a personal outline for turning my life around. My goals were to get out of prison, earn a college degree, write a book, build a business empire and one day serve as an example to all those still locked up that success is possible upon release.

After more than 10 years, I was granted a rare opportunity for reconsideration of my sentence, which brought a chance to be judged, not just on my offense, but my efforts to change as well. I stood before the judge and told my story. I spoke about how my life was before I committed my crime, how remorseful I had become and what I learned while behind bars. I didn't just have words of regret when I stood before the court; I came with the proof of my accomplishments in hand. I had earned my high school diploma and an associate's degree. I had taught myself to speak Spanish, Italian and Mandarin Chinese and mentored countless younger inmates as they arrived in prison. But most importantly for my judge, my master plan demonstrated 10 years of consistency in achieving my goals. The judge gave me a second chance by reducing my sentence to 24 years, while insisting that I carry out the master plan. "Do not disappoint me," she warned.

I ended up serving 16 years in prison. I was released on May 11, 2012 and am now living the life that I once could only dream about. I now have an army of supporters. In the fall of 2013, I received a generous Ratcliffe Scholarship to attend the University of Baltimore's Merrick School of Business — a newly created Entrepreneur Fellows Program. I am scheduled to graduate in December.

I also serve as the director of workforce development for Greater Homewood Community Corporation, where I help disadvantaged city residents gain employment. I have founded several companies that now hire mostly ex-offenders, providing them with employment as well as providing services to the community. It really feels good to help people to earn an honest living, and I can't help but to wonder where I would be if so many people hadn't put their faith in me and helped me be a better person.

There are many other people who were told as children they would die in prison or were given other extreme sentences. As lawmakers consider how to reform our criminal justice system, I know that it remains a priority to hold young people accountable for the harm they have caused. It's also time for all of us to have faith in the ability of children to change and to become productive citizens.

Chris Wilson is the director of workforce development for Greater Homewood Community Corporation. His email is chriswilson599@gmail.com.

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