Men behind bars could steer youths from crime

J Lonnie Lockhart-Bey longs for “simple things” that many of us take for granted.

They include being able to own a long-handled tooth brush, grabbing snacks when he wants them and sitting on the front porch just to relax. He’d like to be able to take a bath and go to the mall.

But such things aren’t possible at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, where Lockhart-Bey, 36, has been incarcerated on a life without parole sentence for a gang-related murder conviction since he was 16 years old. It’s what happens too often to young African Americans.

Despite a reduction in crime reported in many cities, life without parole and mandatory minimum sentences for the last few decades have remained a troubling condition for young men like Lockhart-Bey. “Gang activity is behind me,” said Lockhart-Bey, who served as vice president of Branch 4072 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

He has gotten his high school equivalency diploma and college degrees behind bars. He’s a writer and barber and wants to work with youths. “Young people in this country are in a bad place,” Lockhart-Bey said.

The Aug. 9, 2014, fatal shooting of Michael Brown, 18, by then-Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, the ongoing protests and Black Lives Matter movement resonate with Lockhart-Bey. He grew up in that area and was shot twice in gang violence. “It seems like the adults have forgotten where they came from,” he said.

“Children suffer from a socioeconomic plight that has destroyed communities, where we live, where there is no hope, where there is no choice for change,” Lockhart-Bey said when we spoke last fall at the 10th Annual NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner at the prison. “I want to be the person to tell young people there is a better way.”

The Black Lives Matter movement started because young black Americans too often don’t appear to be valued in police shootings and in black-on-black crimes. But to be able to take the knowledge and wisdom from the prison at 8200 No More Victims Road to the streets of the black community, Lockhart-Bey needs to be free of the life without parole sentence.

It’s not as impossible as it sounds. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2012 that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The sentence fails to consider the “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences” of the criminal act. The ruling calls into question hundreds of cases in which juveniles were sentenced to life without parole.

For people like Lockhart-Bey, it could mean an opportunity to enjoy the things he has had to do without and be the man sharing wisdom with young people. “I want to be the person to tell them there is a better way,” Lockhart-Bey said.

Bills that could be introduced in 2016 in the Missouri General Assembly could result in his freedom and change the 85 percent mandatory minimum sentence requirement for a lot of people behind bars.

“It’s unjust, it’s unfair and it’s immoral,” Hedy Harden, chair of Missouri CURE, or Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, told me. She said Brown’s death and the demand for change have created opportunities for better laws.

“With Ferguson, the time is right,” Harden said. “People are not letting go of this.”

She is working with state legislators, men like Lockhart-Bey, families and ex-offenders to push for change.

“A new feeling is in the air,” Harden said in a speech at the banquet. “Now is the time for action.

“I believe that the time is ripe for prison reform.”

It would free people like Lockhart-Bey to steer youths to do well in school and to become good, taxpaying citizens. It would lower crime even more and save the state millions of dollars in law enforcement, judicial and penal expenses.

It would help to build better relationships between police and the citizens they are supposed to serve and protect. What could be better than all of that?