Four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court took a big step toward righting a galling wrong. It joined nearly every other nation on the globe and banned teen executions. Now it should take the next big step and dump all laws that allow states to lock up juvenile offenders for the rest of their lives.
In a report last year, Human Rights Watch found that more than 2,000 juvenile offenders are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. The U.S. locks up more juveniles for life without the possibility of parole than all nations combined.
The Court agreed last week to hear two Florida cases where juvenile offenders received no-parole life sentences. The two cases, Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida, point out the appalling legal and racial inequities in juvenile no-parole sentencing. Both plaintiffs committed crimes when they were 17 years old. The crimes were violent; a rape and an armed home-invasion robbery. But in both cases, the evidence, testimony and witness identification were muddled and contradictory. They were still convicted and have spent more than a decade in prison.
As is the case with the death penalty, the no-parole sentences are far from race neutral. In the Florida cases, both men are African American. Black teens are 10 times more likely to receive a no-parole life sentences than white youths. They are more likely to receive those sentences when their victims are white, and all-white or majority white juries try them. This was the case in the Florida convictions. Those same juries seldom consider the defendant's age as a mitigating factor.
A significant number of juveniles sentenced to life without parole did not actually commit murder but were participants in a robbery or were at the scene of the crime when a death occurred, as in the Florida cases. The majority of the teens slapped with the draconian sentence had no prior convictions, and a substantial number were aged 15 or younger.
Judges and juries say that violence is violence regardless of the perpetrator's age, and that punishment must be severe to deter crime. Prosecutors and courts in the 40 states that convict and impose no-parole life sentences on juvenile offenders—with California, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Michigan and Florida leading the pack—have repeatedly rejected challenges that teen no-parole sentences are a violation of the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Although murder rates have plunged to near record lows, the public still fears violent crimes, and especially the young persons who commit them. Lawmakers are loath to do anything that will bring public heat their way for being "soft" on crime, when this is still considered the kiss of death for political careers.
Yet, most experts agree that children don't have the same maturity, judgment or emotional development as adults. In a report on juveniles and the death penalty, Amnesty International found that a number of child offenders sentenced to death were victims of severe physical or sexual abuse. Many others were alcohol or drug impaired, or suffered from acute mental illness or brain damage. Nearly all has below average intelligence.
Despite Hollywood sensationalism and media-driven myths about rampaging youth, most experts insist that children are not
natural-born predators. If given proper treatment, counseling, skills training and education, most can become productive adults.
An irony in the Supreme Court's 2005 ban on executing teen killers was that the ban actually worked against no-parole reform efforts. Because states could no longer execute juvenile offenders, the thinking is that it is far more humane to give them life sentences. Victims' rights advocacy groups claim that taking away the option of no-parole sentences for juveniles will weaken crime deterrents. This makes it even tougher to make the case that counseling, treatment and education is the more effective way to redeem young people who commit crimes than harsh sentencing—but it is.
And there's the gnawing question of race. The racial gap between black and white juvenile offenders is vast and troubling. The rush to toss the key away on black juveniles has had terrible consequences in black communities. It has increased poverty, fractured families and further criminalized a generation of young black men.
No matter what their age, those who commit crimes—especially murder—must be punished. However, the punishment should not only fit the crime, it should also fit the age of the person who committed it, and the circumstances that drove them to commit their offenses. If a juvenile offender with the right help can turn his or her life around, then he or she deserves that chance, and judges should be able to give it to them.
The Supreme Court in its decision to ban juvenile executions called teen executions "shameful." They recognized that the practice cannot, and should not, be justified on moral or legal grounds, and that it was past time to put a stop to teen executions. The court should recognize the same with the no-parole sentence for teens and outlaw it.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, "The Hutchinson Report" can be heard in Los Angeles on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and streamed nationally on http://www.blogtalkradio.com.