Juveniles and a Life Behind Bars

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By Nina Reddy

There are more than 2,000 child offenders serving life sentences without parole in the United States today, all for crimes committed before they were 18 years old. In fact, the United States is one of the only countries in the world that allows minors to receive life sentences without the possibility of release. Although it is a popular opinion that children who commit crimes warranting life convictions deserve to be held accountable for their actions, the case for sentencing juveniles to life sentences is not nearly so cut and dry— there are numerous factors that must be considered, and such sentencing carries heavy consequences for society’s youth.

It is alarming that over 25% of individuals serving life without parole sentences were convicted of felony murder or accomplice liability. These individuals participated in a robbery or burglary in which a co-conspirator committed the murder, often without the knowledge of the juvenile being given the life sentence. A whopping 59% of youth sentenced to life without parole are serving for a first-time offense.

Additionally, it is important to understand the heavy racial disparities that exist in juvenile sentencing. Twenty-three percent of juvenile arrests for homicide involve an African American suspected of murdering a white individual, but an astonishing 42% of all juvenile life-without-parole sentences are for African Americans convicted of this crime. On the other hand, white juvenile offenders who are suspected of killing African Americans account for 6.4% of juvenile arrests for murder, but white offenders are only half as likely to receive a life without parole sentence (3.6%).  On a nationwide scale, black youth are sentenced to life without parole at a rate 10 times greater than white youth, and in some areas this disparity is even more pronounced, for instance in California, where black youth are 22.5 times more likely than white youth to receive a life without parole sentence.

The Supreme Court has an extensive history of dealing with criminality in the case of juvenile offenders. In Roper v. Simmons in 2005, the court decided that the death penalty in the case of juvenile offenders qualified as cruel and unusual punishment and asserted that it was a disproportionate punishment for youth, especially given their heightened potential for reform and rehabilitation. Then, in Graham vs. Florida in 2010, the Supreme Court took this decision one step further by effectively banning life without parole sentencing for juveniles not convicted of homicide. While limiting the life-without-parole sentencing did not completely guarantee that a juvenile offender would eventually be released, it did ensure that there would be a meaningful opportunity for release.

Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs in 2012 both began to change the tide concerning the individual lived experience of the juvenile being sentenced to life without parole. Research shows that children who are sentenced to life without parole are often among the most vulnerable members of our society. Almost 80% of these children report witnessing violence directly within their own home, while around 54% witnessed violence weekly in their own neighborhoods. Additionally, a distressing 80% of girls report being abused, and 77% of girls report that they had been sexually abused. Jackson and Miller jointly held that judges must be able to offer an individualized verdict on a case-by-case basis after carefully considering the characteristics and experiences of the juvenile.

The most recent Supreme Court case concerning juvenile life sentencing without parole occurred in 2016: Montgomery v. Louisiana. This case settled the dispute over whether Miller v. Alabama applied retroactively. Although Miller had deemed juvenile sentencing to life without the chance for parole unconstitutional, there were more than 1,100 affected inmates concentrated in three states: Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Michigan, where legislators had decided the decision reached in Miller was not a retroactive one. Once again, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the juvenile offender, Henry Montgomery, observing his rehabilitation and establishing the retroactivity of Miller v. Alabama. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the Court did acknowledge the existence of rare instances where rehabilitation was impossible; in the words of Justice Kennedy, there are cases where a judge may “encounter the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified.”

Ultimately, it seems that the trend in juvenile sentencing is a progressive one. Judges, justices, and public opinion seem to be shifting in a direction that recognizes the rehabilitative and reformative process that a juvenile offender, even one committed for a crime as severe as homicide, can undergo. Unprecedented research from numerous sources, including the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Psychological Association, explains that the brain of a juvenile is simply different from that of an adult. The APA’s General Counsel said it best when commending the Court’s decision in 2012, stating that a consistent and growing body of social science and neuroscience research findings support the conclusion that juveniles are less culpable than adults, and are entitled to different treatment in sentencing in light of their immaturity, vulnerability and changeability.” Today, there is growing support in many states for reform: for instance, in California, juvenile offenders are offered a meaningful chance at parole after 15 to 25 years of imprisonment. The momentum for reform and elimination of juvenile life without parole does not necessarily guarantee the release of juvenile offenders. Rather, it provides an opportunity for review after a reasonable period of incarceration, an opportunity that allows for consideration of the defendant’s unique circumstances. It appears that the United States has arrived at a shaky policy consensus: a life sentence for a juvenile that doesn’t allow for a second chance or rehabilitation is not constitutional.

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