One night in 2015, several teenagers got together and burglarized two homes in Millbrook, Alabama. After being confronted by police, one of the teenagers, A’Donte Washington, engaged in a shootout with an officer and was killed during the gunfire. Lakeith Smith, another one of the teenagers, participated in the burglary. He did not have a gun and did not shoot at anyone, yet he was charged with the death of his friend.
After rejecting a plea offer for 25 years and going to trial, he received 30 years for felony murder, a 15-year sentence for burglary, and two 10-year sentences for theft. In total, Smith was sentenced to 65 years in prison. He was 15 years old.
The travesty in Smith’s case is at the intersection of a number of different issues raised by criminal justice reformers.
Prosecutors make choices that can mean the difference between a few years or a life in prison.
Prosecutors are among the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system. And while prosecutorial discretion can be wielded for good, Smith’s case illustrates the problems with prosecutors abusing that discretion. Prosecutors have the power to decide which crimes to charge, and in this case, prosecutors did not have to charge Smith with felony murder.
Prosecutors also have discretion to charge people as juveniles or to transfer them to the adult system. Courts have long accepted that juveniles can lack impulse control, which is reflected in the decision of the teenagers to participate in a burglary. However, courts have also recognized the greater likelihood of rehabilitation of juveniles.
Since Smith was under 16 when the burglary was committed, the case could have been handled in the juvenile justice system where there is greater consideration given to alternatives to incarceration and the ability to be rehabilitated. However, the prosecutor decided to prosecute Smith as an adult. And, unfortunately, under Alabama law, once a person is transferred to adult court, that person is permanently outside of juvenile court jurisdiction.
These discretionary decisions have detrimental consequences. Transferring Smith to the adult system foreclosed his eligibility for diversionary programs that would have kept him out of prison. Charging Smith with felony murder ensures that he will spend the majority of his life — if not all of it — in prison, foregoing any chance of meaningful rehabilitation.
The loss of one teenager is tragic enough, but the prosecutor’s decisions in charging and sentencing Smith — who did not possess a gun and never shot at police — exacerbates this loss by throwing his life away, too. It is not justice when the punishment so clearly does not fit the crime.
People should not be punished for using their right to a trial by jury.
It is no secret that sentences after trial are much harsher than those given to people who accept plea bargains. It is often called a “trial tax” or “trial penalty” — a reference to criminal defendants receiving a more severe sentence because they decided to exercise their constitutional right to a trial and reject the prosecution’s plea agreement.
Smith exercised his right to a trial, and his lack of success should not lead to a longer sentence. Rather, the sentence should be in line with what was offered as a plea bargain and should be appropriate for the crime. A sentencing scheme that imposes a trial tax is contrary fundamental fairness, due process, and an impartial justice system.
Prosecutors are crucial for the administration of justice, and we need to hold them accountable for their actions.
The job of the prosecutor is to advance justice, yet all too often they have focused only on punishment. This focus fuels our state’s mass incarceration crisis and disproportionately affects people of color and people with fewer resources.
However, because these prosecutors are elected they are accountable to the voters of Alabama. Ask your district attorney and any candidates running for the position where they stand on criminal justice reform.
Where do they stand on the prosecution of juveniles as adults? What are their positions on police accountability and oversight? Have they encouraged participation in diversionary programs for people accused of crimes? Do they believe that people can be rehabilitated?
Last year, the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice announced a new, multi-year initiative to make sure that prosecutors are held accountable to their communities. A recent ACLU national poll found that 95 percent of respondents support the idea that a prosecutor engaged in misconduct should be held accountable.
A district attorney who is committed to criminal justice reform, decreasing reliance on incarceration, and using the power of the office for the fair and smart administration of justice can go a long way to making sure that a case like Smith’s never happens in Alabama again.