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New life chances for children facing life sentences 

Special Interest Programme / Partner story

Photo provided by CFSY  

As a kid growing up in southeast Chicago, Marshan Allen enjoyed fishing, hanging out with friends, and enjoying music. He was just 15 when he was sentenced to life without parole for a crime he did not commit. Thanks to youth sentencing reforms, Marshan was released from prison after serving almost 25 years.  

Today, after more than six years of freedom, Marshan says he is working diligently, “trying to change the way the system views juveniles, and ultimately how they treat them”. All of the obstacles he has faced so far have shaped how he approaches sentencing reform and the paths he has taken to produce change. He currently serves as vice president for advocacy and partnerships at Represent Justice, and as a mentor in his community. When asked about how he sees himself giving back in the future, Marshan said, “I want to be an example and show that we are not the monsters or predators that they claimed we were. That given the chance, we can reintegrate into society and be a force for positive change.” Marshan graduated from Northeastern Illinois University in August 2020 with a Bachelor’s degree in Justice Policy and Advocacy. He now wants to pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer, and started law school in 2022. 

He also serves on the board for the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY), a not-for-profit organisation that believes all children deserve a second chance. 

CFSY is leading efforts to ban extreme sentences for children in the United States, the only country in the world that sentences children under the age of 18 to life without parole. Sentencing varies significantly according to a young person’s location and legal representation. Racial and economic factors can deepen these inequities further. 

The organisation tackles these issues with several approaches. It leads and supports campaigns to end extreme sentences for children, forming coalitions and working in partnership with people directly affected by these policies. Education and negotiation with key decision makers helps advance reforms to ensure young people receive second chances. 

The campaign provides legal resources, both to represent children who are challenging extreme sentences and to help develop new state-level laws to abolish them. 

“Adolescent development research has proven that children’s brains and characters are still forming,” explains co-executive director Xavier McElrath-Bey, who himself was sentenced to 25 years in prison at just 13. “They do not have adult levels of judgement or ability to assess risks. They are also uniquely capable of rehabilitation, so should be held accountable in age-appropriate ways, with a focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society.” 

CFSY also convenes the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network – a group of adults formerly imprisoned as youth who prove that communities are safer and stronger with them home. Members like Kim share their stories to appeal for age-appropriate accountability – and to counter the racially charged and dehumanising narratives that are used to justify extreme sentences. The network shares their lived experiences to inform CFSY’s support for people returning home, including mentoring and resources so they can heal and prosper.  

In June this year, CFSY celebrated an incredible milestone with its community. 1,000 people who were serving life without parole are now free.  

The landscape is changing for future sentencing too, thanks to the hard work of the CFSY since 2009. 10 years ago, only three states had banned juvenile life imprisonment without parole. Today more than half (28) of all US states have done so. 

Oak supports the work of Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth as part of our Special Interest Programme. Driven by the interests and passions of Oak’s Trustees, the programme provides the space and flexibility to make grants outside of Oak’s other programme strategies. Grants support partners in a wide range of fields including medical research, education, environment, humanitarian relief, mental health, the arts, and much more.