OPINION: The Limits of Reform—No Justice for James and Jerome Taafulisia

by Xing Hey

Many years ago, I sat dejected as a judge sentenced me to life in prison for crimes committed as a 15 year old. At the time, I felt as if the world was falling away and I was hanging on without a parachute or a place for a soft landing. The arms of somebody that would catch and hold me couldn’t be found. I never felt so alone as I did in that moment. Aside from three random strangers, the packed courtroom on that day was there to encourage the punishment of a criminalized teenage me. When the punishment was officially announced, the satisfaction of the audience in that room was eerie. I still feel the chills from that day years ago today.  

On a grey overcast Thursday in a Seattle Courthouse on August 6, 2020, King County Superior Court Judge O’Donnell, sentenced James and Jerome Taafulisia to 40 years in prison for crimes they committed when they were 16 and 17. As I had once been a teenager given such a sentence, as an adult I felt helpless and heartbroken upon hearing the punishment handed down to James and Jerome. The feelings when being told you are going to spend the rest of your life in prison as a teenager are indescribable, but those feelings came rushing back as I heard the judge attempt to justify sending James and Jerome to languish in prison for a lifetime. I sympathized with how they were feeling after being told that they were no longer fit to be a part of society. 

Although James and Jerome have put on a tough facade to survive the trauma of abuse and neglect throughout childhood, on that day I witnessed emotions from them for the first time. James burst into tears, while Jerome burst into an original song declaring his unconditional love for his brothers. Despite the indisputable tragedy of the lives of these two young people, Judge O’Donnell sentenced them to prison for a lifetime for mistakes and choices they made as traumatized youth. 

Everyone in the courtroom grieved for James and Jerome that day. Everyone, it seemed, except the judge, prosecutors, and maybe even the lawyers defending them. For these agents of the system it appeared to be business as usual which, in this current moment in history, is the biggest tragedy. They simply smiled and shook hands, as if the totality of the situation was a normal function of the system. At the end of the day, they got to go home to children and families, while the system’s victims, including families and friends of Jeannine Zapata, James Tran, as well as James, Jerome, Joseph (the youngest brother accused in this incident) and others, will continue to grieve the lives lost and live with the harms which the system ultimately caused. Every single individual impacted by the tragedy on January 26, 2016 in the homeless encampment known as the Jungle, will live with scars or resolution of some sort, but will never actually be healed by the remedy prescribed by the state. 

Sadly this is the typical narrative in the history of law and justice in the United States of America where children, BIPOC community members, and houseless folx disproportionately make up the population of those oppressed, criminalized, and neglected by the state.  For James, Jerome, and Joseph, the Washington State system of Child Protective Services (CPS), had been their legal guardian since they were toddlers. With no accountability, this state institution failed to provide them with the safety and protection that all children deserve. Yet the remedy imposed by the state for children they helped traumatize and forced into homelessness, was to punish them in the form of incarceration. 

So it shouldn’t surprise us when harm occurs in our communities, when our children are hurting and crying, their pain is customarily met with indignation rather than empathic understanding. The cries of our children sound different to those tasked with upholding the system. Just like us, our children are dangerous to them, deserving of criminalization and punishment. No matter what personal testimony or scientific evidence is put in front of them about the effects of childhood trauma and compromised brain development, our children’s behaviors and actions are criminalized and punished. Instead of treatment and restorative remedies, they increase the structure and capacity of the criminal legal system to punish us by investing in more policing, more prosecutors, more jails, and more prisons. 

Accordingly, those responsible for creating and maintaining the legal system have always found a way, reformed a way, to lock us up and throw away the key. Time and again, throughout the history of this criminal justice system, they have found a way to kill us, while convincing us that they will reform the systems that are killing us. However, whether in prison or on the streets, we keep dying. We just keep on dying and they keep on convincing us we will be okay. They often dupe us with progressive narratives and strategies then push forward proposals and legislation that supposedly will fix the problem of our deaths by this system. 

A reformist agenda is when a judge in the traditional criminal system of justice can attempt to convince us that sentencing James and Jerome to only 40 years was doing them a favor, stating that the time they will spend in the state system of corrections will give them a better opportunity to change themselves; ironically an opportunity to change themselves in a system that has never been kind to them, an opportunity they have never been given while free in society. 

Reform of the criminal legal system has been shown not to work for us. Progressive promises to close down the youth jail within 5 years, Miranda Rights ordinances with young people, auto-decline legislation, zero youth detention, and Miller v. Alabama only matter on the surface if the system is going to continue to criminalize the traumas of our children. The truth is, if they can’t put our children in youth jails, they will find a way to put them in adult prisons. They will always find a way. Reform is a strategy that will make us forget and be convinced. Reform results in a policy where King County Superior Court Judge Sean O’Donnell, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, and King County Deputy Prosecutor Maria Barbosa, after the overwhelming evidence of childhood trauma presented, could make an argument that a 40-year prison sentence for James and Jerome is justice in light of the sentence they could have given. In good conscience, they actually believed that such a sentence would be in James, Jerome’s, and society’s best interest. 

Unfortunately, though today we grieve the lives lost to the brutality of the police and the criminal justice system, tomorrow we will forget. While James and Jerome are sitting at Green Hill School pondering how to survive a 40-year prison sentence and all the additional traumas that come with it, we will go on with our lives. Months or years from now, we will forget about James and Jerome, as we have forgotten about the multitudes of young BIPOC men and women from our communities sentenced to die in prison. As we forget, more tragedies of state-sanctioned violence by the system will continue to happen to the young people of our communities. 

As with James, Jerome, myself and many others, this system is working exactly the way it was built to work. My story, James and Jerome’s story, is not unique when it comes to law and justice in America. There is no justice in this system for us. Our cries don’t matter to them. Never have. The oppression of BIPOC bodies continues to maintain white America’s status quo.

Therefore, if we truly care about BIPOC bodies broken by the system, we must imagine a world where the systems that cause harm to individuals with those identities do not exist. We have to educate ourselves and our surroundings about the history of Black, Brown, and Indigenous liberation, and understand how an abolitionist imagination is key in that liberation. If Black lives truly mattered to us, then a world of abolition, where a carceral system of policing and prisons is not our default solution to social problems, should matter as well. 

Imagine instead of criminalization and punishment, the likes of James, Jerome and I would have been provided the support and resources we needed to thrive as young people. Instead of further marginalization, imagine when I was suspended from school, dropped out of the 7th grade, or was a runaway, I was provided preventative support and resources I needed. Instead of further criminalization, imagine when James, Jerome and Joseph, were homeless teengaers doing what was neccesary to survive on the streets, they were given the preventative support and resources they needed. How might things have been different if we had caring and nurturing adults to intervene at some point, if community-based youth organizations had the resources to reach out to us? Part of an abolitionist’s imagination is the belief that we have the ability and brilliance to take care of each other, that we can keep us safe, without the complicity of the state. However, if we cannot begin to have such an imagination, how can we possibly protect our children from the harms the state can do to them? 

Our accountability to the likes of James and Jerome is to not forget about them. Our accountability is in our willingness to hold such a reformist system accountable by not being easily convinced of the progressive promises and policies that end up killing us and our children. 

We are in September now. Summer is over. After months of protest and civil unrest, we are still here: Jacob Blake, Dijon Kizzee, and thirteen-year-olds being charged as adults by a so-called progressive King County Prosecutors Office, not to mention countless other unnamed BIPOC community members dying from the injustices of this system. There is no time better than now that we come together and imagine a new way to restore humanity into our youth and wholeness to our communities. Abolition must be an initiative and policy now. The more we wait, the more we will continue to grieve the lives of our community members lost to this system. 

Connect with James and Jerome:

James Taafulisia 848290
Green Hill School 
375 SW 11 Street
Chehalis, WA 98532

Jerome Taafulisia 851094
Green Hill School
375 SW 11 Street
Chehalis, WA 98532

Connect with our abolition work:



Xing Hey is a community organizer, youth advocate, educator, student, abolitionist and a member of APICAG (Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group). He’s called Tacoma/Seattle home his entire life. 

Featured image is attributed to Dennis Sylvester and belongs to the Public Domain under a CCO 1.0 Public Domain Dedication.

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