PART I: Juvenile Justice? SCOTUS Decision on Life Without Parole

7 years ago

Q:How many children were under 18 when they were imprisoned for life without parole in the US?
A: Over 2,500

Q: How many other countries imprison youth for life without parole?
A: None

This spring, in a 5/4 decision, The Supreme Court decided that it was not legal to imprison for life without parole a person under the age of 18 who had NOT been involved in a murder. This ruling affected the lives of at least 127 inmates. 73 were sentenced to life in prison without parole at the age of 13 or 14 years old.

Razor wire fence with prison building

This ruling did not free any of them. It did not parole them. It merely gave them the right to -- at some point -- a re-sentencing hearing. That hearing could result in anything that state will allow, anything except life with no parole. Hopefully these people have good legal representation. Justice Kennedy indicated that "... of the 129 juvenile offenders serving life without parole for a non-homicide crime, 77 are behind bars in Florida. The other 52 criminals are in just 10 states and the federal system."

But this ruling does not affect juveniles who were convicted of a murder-related offense -- for instance, the 15-year-kid whose crack-addict mother's dealer forced him to accompany him on a job threatening to kill his mother if he didn't. A murder took place. The child, because he was there -- holding no weapon, doing nothing violent -- was sentenced to life without parole. His name is Kenneth Young. He is 24 now. Felony murder convictions are not covered by the SCOTUS ruling. Juveniles who were present at a murder but did not plan it or commit it account for over 25% of the total group sentenced to life without parole.

The overall "leader" in incarcerated juveniles serving life without parole for any crime is 444 in Pennsylvania.

One of the cases there, described by the Philadelphia Daily News is this one:

For being a traitorous friend, Stacey Torrance was thrown into jail for life.
Torrance was just 14 when an older cousin convinced him in 1988 to lure a rich kid to a North Philadelphia corner, where the cousin and an accomplice kidnapped and later shot and strangled him. Torrance didn't kill 16-year-old Alexander Porter and insisted he never knew of his cousin's murderous intent. But 20 years later, he sits in a state prison in Chester, with no prospect for parole or eventual freedom.

Another case is covered in The Tidings, a Catholic news service says:

The court based its ruling on Graham v. Florida, in which 16-year-old Terrence Graham and three other adolescents attempted to rob a restaurant. As part of a plea bargain, Graham received three-year probation under his promise that he would change his life, but a year later he violated his probation when caught in a robbery. Although a pre-sentencing report from the state Department of Corrections recommended a maximum of four years, Graham was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Terrance was a "rough kid." He got caught in a police chase after running away from the scene of a robbery with guns in his car. The Florida judge decided he was beyond help. Forever.

Of the 2,750 juveniles in prison for life, Florida currently has 266 followed by California at 250. Click here to see how many your state have imprisoned for life. The good news is that not all states allow this. Twelve do not.

The Supreme Court ruling has, to date, resulted in no re-sentencing, according to an interview I had with a representative from the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. And even if the hearings happen, what results from them will be a wild variable.

These kids serving life are not all "warm and fuzzy" and in jail by accident. Some really do have tragedy and mistake written all over them, like Kenneth Young. But some are frightening in their brutality, people you would be scared to have living near you. They run the gamut. But they all have been told there will be no life for them outside of prison. Ever. And they all have been tried as adults.

But none of them were adults. Robert Schwartz of the Juvenile Law Center was quoted in CNN this year as saying:

...defendants differ in culpability, or blameworthiness. At no other time are these differences more pronounced than during adolescence, when youths struggle with their immaturity, undeveloped decision-making abilities, impulsiveness, ack of future orientation and susceptibility to negative peer pressure.

Recent brain imaging technology reinforces the adolescent development literature. From the prefrontal cortex to the limbic area, the teenage brain is undergoing dramatic changes during adolescence in ways that affect teens' ability to reason, to weigh consequences for their decisions and to delay gratification long enough to make careful short- and long-term choices.

So we have taken about 2,500 human beings who are not equipped to strategize with their lawyer, ill-prepared to fully understand the implications of their actions for their lifetime, and given up on them totally, telling them that no matter how hard they try to rehabilitate, no matter how unjust the sentencing, no matter what improvement they make -- they are going to be locked up for life with adults.

I have never heard of the US prison system as being the most effective in the world, or the most rehabilitative. In fact, its emphasis, in so much as it seems to have one, is on retributive justice. The iniquities are well known.

Prison Legal News pointed out in 2008 that 59% of the juveniles serving life without parole in the US were first offenders. They share this story, one of many that are worth reading:

Antonio Nunez was raised in Los Angeles, his life shaped by gang violence. the age of 14, he got into a car with two older men, one of whom had been kidnapped. A police chase ensued, and gunfire was exchanged. No one was killed; no one was even hurt. But Antonio was sentenced to life in California's San Quentin prison, where he remains today. "He has lost all hope," his sister Cindy Nunez told Reuters. "We try to keep his spirits up by saying something will change in the law."

And, as if proof was needed that injustices have been committed, according to Human Rights Watch, among juvenile offenders serving life without parole, "in U.S. federal prisons, of those youth serving LWOP whose race has been identified, 73% are youth of color and 56% are black."

We all have a stake in this. What our government and our courts do, they do in our name. These kids -- many of them poor, many of them with few advantages in life, are our kids, our American children. Some may need to be held separate from us for a long time. But others still need a chance to have their sentences reassessed.

The SCOTUS decision raises as many questions as it answers.

We need to look at how we handle the overall sentencing of juveniles as adults in the US. All the news about the SCOTUS decision has raised interest again in the Restorative Justice Movement. This movement has largely been promoted by church groups, and I will present it to you later this week as Part II of this series.

The Supreme Court Decision

NPR Interview with imprisoned-for-life without parole Kenneth Young

The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth

Full Disclosure: My stake in the overall issue of sentencing the juvenile

Many years ago, I was walking into a restaurant with my mother and a friend of hers when we were jumped from behind by two junkie teenagers. The friend fell, I was knocked unconscious briefly, and when I came to, one of the boys was jumping on my mother's chest, waving her purse in the air like a trophy. I chased him, trying to tackle him, wanting (much to my surprise) to kill him. I missed.

He was picked up later that week, beating up an 80-year-old woman after robbing her. He was 15. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to a long term in Walpole Prison, where the Boston Strangler had also been sent. Hard Core. He was taken off the streets, but no deep justice was served that day. When he, an attractive child, finally got out of jail, odds are he would just be a better and embittered criminal, and the victim of crimes himself.

Bottom line: No One Won. And had he been imprisoned forever? No One Would Win. What happened to us, as victims of a violent crime, was awful. My mother had 5 broken ribs and a fractured collarbone. But what happened to our assailant was surely worse. There was no chance at all that he would ever emerge a better adult than when he had entered as an adolescent. And, when the time came, the community he re-entered would be less safe than when he committed his crime.

~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also blogs right along at Time's Fool

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