The Scandal of Sentencing Juveniles to Life in Prison without Parole

Carolyn Burstein
February 05, 2015

NETWORK, along with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other faith organizations, is an official supporter of the “Statement of Principles” of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth” (CFSY). These principles reflect our strong moral belief in human dignity and rights – as well as the need to respond to those without power. Because we believe in restorative justice, we readily join with CFSY in stating that youth under the age of 18 have the potential to become rehabilitated and should ultimately be reintegrated into society when they are deemed to pose no threat to the common good.

In addition, NETWORK signed on to a January letter to Pope Francis and to the Papal Nuncio requesting that the pope visit Graterford Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania (about an hour northwest of Philadelphia) when he comes to the U.S. in September. Around 500 inmates in this prison were sentenced as juveniles to life without parole (known as JLWOP) – more than anywhere else.

On February 2, CFSY received a response from Archbishop Caput of Philadelphia that he would speak to the Holy Father about the possibility of a visit to the prison. We are optimistic that Pope Francis, who cares devotedly for the young and those at the margins, will respond positively.

The United States is the only country that sentences juveniles to incarceration for life without possibility of parole. Many other countries allow juveniles to be tried as adults, but sentences in these countries are always subject to review.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that, even for homicide, mandatory sentences of life without parole could not be imposed on juveniles. As is the case for many decisions, this ruling built on previous cases in 2005 and 2010. At the time, Steven Shapiro, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) national legal director, said: “Today’s decision helps to restore some rationality to the treatment of juveniles in our criminal justice system. [Now] judges will at least consider the fact that a 14 year old is standing before them when deciding whether to impose a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, even in murder cases. The Court correctly held that laws forbidding such informed discretion before sentencing children to die in prison are unconstitutional. They also defy common sense.”

Post-Miller v. Alabama, the defendant’s age must be considered along with a list of potential mitigating factors, but the justices said nothing about applying the case retroactively. By late 2014, five states, including Pennsylvania, have held that it should not. According to an article in the Huffington Post, originally written in August 2014 and updated in October, state prosecutors have continued to wage a bitter fight against human rights groups and victims groups who advocate for the Miller v. Alabama decision to be backdated. One reason for their persistence is that they are reluctant to lose a bargaining chip they find extremely useful in many cases. The Supreme Court tends to stay out of such state-level battles.

The Sentencing Project,” (SP) an advocacy group for sentencing reform that opposes JLWOP, has been releasing reports periodically since Miller v. Alabama based on surveys of more than 1500 people imprisoned as juveniles to life without parole. Their analyses found that as “tough-on-crime” policies became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, legislators in various states created laws that ignored developmental differences between children and adults and instead focused on the nature of the crime. Even though mitigating factors such as exposure to community violence or having family members in prison contribute significantly to rates of juveniles committing “adult” crimes, these factors were deemed irrelevant. One of the major injustices in the criminal justice systems of the states is their failure to give credence to the human maturation process.

Many other significant findings of “The Sentencing Project” are worth noting:

  • More than 2500 inmates (an estimate) who are still incarcerated received their sentences as juveniles for life without parole (without freedom of information requests to every jurisdiction in the U.S., the exact number is unknown)
  • Of the 2500, 97% are male and 60% are black
  • The proportion of blacks serving life for killing a white person is much higher than the proportion of whites sentenced to life for killing blacks
  • The vast majority of these inmates come from violent homes, and nearly half had experienced physical abuse
  • Forty percent of all JLWOP prisoners had been in special education classes, and less than half had been in school when they committed their crimes
  • More than 25% had a parent in prison, and 60% had close relatives in prison.

The differential value of prison inmates by race is, unfortunately, a notorious fact. As the Huffington Post indicated, “…the mantle of inherent innocence never covered all children equally.” The same article at a later point said that black children were rarely given the benefit of the doubt in the juvenile justice system and were regularly treated inhumanely and as “super-predators” even though they were first themselves victims of terrible violence. And the Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice Fairness and Equity maintains that a disproportionate number of African American, Native American and Hispanic youth face higher chances of incarceration than white youth. Josh Rovner, who authored the SP report in mid-2014, said that black youth are “much more likely to be detained, and much more likely to be sent to adult facilities.” Why would we expect that it would be any different than the adult system?

What is most troubling in the latest SP report is the fact that only 13 out of 28 states complied with the 2012 Supreme Court ruling to abolish mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles. A majority of states have done nothing to pursue statutory reform, while others use loopholes in their legislation to continue sentencing minors to life in prison without parole. Overall, a total of 44 states are guilty of these types of offenses. Mint Press News even says, in an article in mid-2014, that a University of Texas study found that juveniles waiting to be tried as adults are often held in county jails, where they are denied access to services and programs they are legally required to receive.

In December 2014, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case, Toca v. Louisiana that should decide whether Miller v. Alabama should be back-dated. A decision is expected in June 2015. If the ruling is implemented in all the states, both the disparity among the states and the current inequity against youth, especially those who are African American, Native American or Hispanic will have finally been put to rest. Last November, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a sharp criticism of our treatment of juveniles and declared that sentences imposed on juveniles “must allow for a possibility of review and a prospect of release, notwithstanding the gravity of the crime and the circumstances around it.”

We at NETWORK agree with the UN and with the principles of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. The practice of sentencing children under age 18 to life imprisonment without parole is a violation of human rights and dignity, our basic moral values, and a conscience rooted in justice – and it flies in the face of all Catholic Social Teaching.

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