De’Andrea Taylor and Ateonia Taylor
Breonna Taylor was one of Everette Taylor’s six children. He’s currently incarcerated in a Michigan prison.
The assassination of Breonna Taylor two years ago in his Louisville, Kentucky, home by police rocked the nation and united millions to pressure the government for real police reform and a ban on “no-knock” warrants. This injustice, along with the public lynchings of George Floyd and others, also sheds light on the systemic and institutional racism that has infected all areas of our society. Yet what’s missing from this set of revolutionary demands is comprehensive sentencing reform.
The source of the problem is systemic. When school systems are underfunded in our inner cities, children of color lose out. Then, employers tend to choose White male workers over Black, Latino, or women workers. Because of these failures, many young Black inner-city men find that the best way to get ahead is selling drugs. The problem is further compounded when a young Black man, like Breonna’s father, comes in contact with the police. In such encounters, Black men are lucky to walk away alive.
This system also pits Black men against each other. Sooner or later, if the police don’t arrest one drug seller, another, who has been betrayed by the same systemic racism, may try to rob him. The outcome is often death for one and prison for the other.
This is essentially Everette Taylor’s story. He was selling drugs because our society failed him, and he gave up on a legitimate livelihood. When he was 21, another Black man, also failed by society, came to rob him, and Taylor and his friends defended themselves. The other man died, and Taylor, although he wasn’t the shooter, faced a first-degree murder charge. The jury sentenced him to second-degree murder, in view of the fact that it was a drug deal gone wrong. The sentence was 25-50 years, plus two years for felony firearms possession.
Taylor could have gotten out of prison in 27 years—an extraordinarily long sentence, but not long enough for the state of Michigan, apparently. Michigan’s tough-on-drugs laws, with mandatory sentencing rules, removes a judge’s prerogative to render appropriate judgment in certain situations. Police later searched Taylor’s car and found the drugs that the man who came to rob him was after. Because Taylor received bad legal advice, the drug trial took place after the murder trial, and Taylor was then sentenced to another 20-40 years for drug possession. The judge was forced to stack this new sentence of 20-40 years on top of the 25-to-50-year sentence. Taylor was effectively relegated to life imprisonment.
The judge had no discretion to consider that Taylor was a 21-year-old young man with a brain not yet fully developed, who society had failed, and who was forced into selling drugs because of underfunded schools, poor education, and being passed over for good jobs because he was Black.
Everette, who remained close to all six of his children, including Breonna while she was alive, is still being held in a Michigan prison after 23 years.
Michigan has mandatory sentencing rules from an earlier era when old White state legislators in Lansing referred to young Black men as “super-predators” as they competed with one another to see who could be more “tough on crime.” Hence, Michigan, like other states, has a mass incarceration epidemic.
Today, Taylor has molded himself into a strong, resilient man who wants to help his community. My organization, The Adolescent Redemption Project, is a new nonprofit taking up Taylor’s cause (and that of others like him) to ask the governor to commute his sentence and give him a second chance at life. This could mean he might be eligible for release in three years.
TARP advocates for justice for the men and women sentenced to die in prison for crimes committed when their brains were not fully developed. We fight to give judges discretion so they may consider the mitigating factors, such as childhood trauma and economic distress, for the offenders they are sentencing.
The truth is, mandatory sentencing laws were created by using racist fears to make citizens think our elected judges were incapable of rendering judgment. This was a trick. The drafters of such laws knew they would primarily affect urban youth and Black and Brown children who now fill our jails unnecessarily.
While Breonna may never get justice, there is still a chance to win it for her father.
Josh Puckett wrote this article for YES! magazines. It is republished with permission via Michigan News Connection reporting for the YES! Media-Public News Service Collaboration.
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