From Life Behind Bars To Becoming Opposing Counsel: How Sentencing Reform Can Shape The Law


justice-g5eb64c9b0_640There are many a motivational poster with the sentiment “You are bigger than your past” somewhere on it. They usually read as kitschy corporate art, right in the same category as a kitten grabbing a tight rope with the words “hang in there” written underneath it. But sometimes, you meet people who lock you in awe by how accurately they embody that ethos. You know the ones, those few who inspire just by going about their day’s goals — David Goggins usually comes to my mind. A new name was recently added to that list.

This fall, Marshan Allen will attend Chicago-Kent College of Law on a full scholarship. But unlike most incoming law students, Marshan’s path to a legal career began when he was sentenced as a teenager to life in prison.

Allen was released after almost 25 years thanks to youth sentencing reforms, but upon his release he was met with a new set of challenges. With a homicide conviction on his record, he faced significant obstacles to housing and employment. With unrelenting perseverance and the support of family, friends, and an employer willing to take a chance on him at a critical juncture in his life, Allen is now a homeowner, husband, and on his way to becoming a public-interest attorney.

Allen still has time for extracurriculars while he’s going through law school, like helping to bring awareness to the fact that slavery is still legal in the United States:

And as powerful as Marshan’s story is, I hope to never hear another one like it.

Allen was just 15 years old when he was given a life without parole sentence, told that he would likely die in a cell for stealing a van that was used in a crime that resulted in the tragic death of another person. Such a punishment is unique to America. The United States is the only country in the world known to sentence children to life in prison without the possibility of parole, a punishment that we’re working to abolish at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Research demonstrates that children’s brains — not just their bodies — are still developing. As a result, they are more reckless and impulsive, without the same ability as adults to think through the consequences of their actions.

If anti-CRT measures fail as gloriously as I hope for them too, more people will become aware of the name George Stinney Jr. He was a 14-year-old boy sentenced to death and electrocuted for naught, as his exoneration 70 years later showed. This bit of barbarism happened only ~80 years ago. Let me correct myself. While true, that makes it sound longer ago than it actually was. When your grandma was younger, or 20 years before the March on Washington — whichever feels more recent and tangible to you — a 14-year-old child was murdered in your country. Today, I assume that the thought of such a thing, even without the racial implications, strikes of barbarism. My hope is that in a future soon to come, the notion that a 15-year-old could be imprisoned for the rest of his life summons the same degree of visceral repugnance. 

If you’d like to hear more from Mr. Allan directly, I recommend that you start here:

If you would like to donate time or money to fighting to make sure that we don’t harbor the injustice of another Marshan Allan or George Stinney Jr., you should check out The Campaign For The Fair Sentencing Of Youth. And keep an eye out for judges who are sending young children to prison over made up crimes. No seriously, that happened. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were happening elsewhere.

Imprisoned For Life At 15, Freed After 25 years And Now In Law School. Mercy For Children Who Commit Crimes Benefits Society And The Economy [Market Watch]


Chris Williams became a social media manager and assistant editor for Above the Law in June 2021. Prior to joining the staff, he moonlighted as a minor Memelord™ in the Facebook group Law School Memes for Edgy T14s.  He endured Missouri long enough to graduate from Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. He is a former boatbuilder who cannot swim, a published author on critical race theory, philosophy, and humor, and has a love for cycling that occasionally annoys his peers. You can reach him by email at cwilliams@abovethelaw.com and by tweet at @WritesForRent.





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