Lincoln Anthony Blades
America is the only country in the world that allows life sentences without the possibility of parole for people under the age of 18.
In the past several years, juvenile life without parole (JLWOP), has been hotly contested. In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, Justice Kagan of the Supreme Court, writing for the majority, said that sentencing children convicted of murder to mandatory life sentences not only “violates the 8th amendments prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments,” but also that states should considerthe juvenile defendants maturity, the nature of their crime, how they were raised, and their likelihood to commit another crime as mitigating factors behind their sentencing. The decision was largely predicated on the idea that adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences,” which essentially means that young people shouldn’t be punished like adults, because their brains aren’t fully developed and don’t function as adult brains do.
The ruling only ended mandatory JLWOP sentences. After the Miller v. Alabamadecision, 14 different states ruled that the decision should be applied retroactively, meaning those who are now adults, but who were given mandatory life sentences in prison without parole as juveniles before the 2012 ruling should be granted an opportunity for parole. Seven other states ruled that the decision shouldn’t be applied this way. In 2016, the Supreme Court case Montgomery v. Louisiana effectively settled the debate.
In 1963, 17-year-old Henry Montgomery shot and killed a police officer in Louisiana, and a jury originally handed down a death sentence. As Mother Jones detailed in a recent piece about Montgomery, that conviction was overturned on the grounds of prejudice and he was retried, then found guilty and sentenced to mandatory life in prison. In his time behind bars, Montgomery has been recognized as a model member of the prison-community. On January 25, 2016, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that their previous Miller ruling should apply retroactively, to those, like Montgomery, sentenced before 2012. Rashad Robinson, Color of Change executive director, explained that after this ruling, prosecutors were told to conduct resentencing hearings for the approximately 2,500 people who were serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles, many of whom, like Montgomery, had been in jail for many years.
Yet while it may sound like a happy compromise between stewards of the justice system and those seeking to honor the humanity of people serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles, prosecutors have continued to find ways to impose overly-punitive sentences.
In the Montgomery ruling, Justice Kennedy wrote, referencing the Miller case as well as two previous Supreme Court rulings, “children are constitutionally different from adults in their level of culpability,” but also stated that the majority opinion in Millerbelieved that the ruling “barred life-without-parole sentences for all but the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.” For many prosecutors, that distinction, that some may be worthy of this punishment because they are “permanently incorrigible,” has served as a lynchpin needed to try these JLWOP cases with an ask for life without parole again, though the sentence is supposed to be a rarity.
“Consider Michigan, where prosecutors are denying parole or shorter sentences for 60 percent of juvenile lifers, even in cases where parole boards have recommended them. In Oakland County, northwest of Detroit, the share is a whopping 90 percent,” Robinson wrote in op-ed for The New York Times.
Robinson, whose group is the the nation’s largest online racial justice organization, spoke with Teen Vogue and broke down another problematic issue that has occurred in the wake of the Miller ruling: de-facto life sentences. “We have a problem with not just policy but practice, in that district attorneys will either give something that’s a de-facto life without probation or parole, where they give 80 years without the possibility of probation or parole,” he says.
Poor black children are most likely to feel the impact of these practices. In the ACLU’s report on “Racial Disparities in Sentencing”, it’s plainly noted that “although blacks constitute only about 13 percent of the U.S. population, as of 2009, Blacks constitute 28.3 percent of all lifers, 56.4 percent of those serving LWOP, and 56.1 percent of those who received LWOP for offenses committed as juveniles.”
But the racism that black and brown people encounter doesn’t begin with the justice system, it begins with how they exist in society, from the neighborhoods they grow up in, the schools they attend, and the violent incursion that surrounds them — which makes JLWOP sentences even more racially skewed and systematically unfair. A 2012 report by The Sentencing Project titled “The Lives of Juvenile Lifers” revealed that 32% of these inmates grew up in public housing, 40% had been enrolled in special education classes, fewer than half were attending school at the time of their offense, and 80% of girls reported histories of physical abuse and 77% of girls reported histories of sexual abuse.
So what can we, as citizens, do to fight JLWOP sentencing? “We’ve got to hold elected officials accountable and the fact of the matter is as long as district attorneys can run unopposed, as long as district attorneys can think that racking up tough and long sentences will get them reelected and elected to the next thing, as long as that continues to happen we will not see any change,” Robinson says. “There are 2,400 district attorneys in this country — about 80% of them right now run unopposed. And through the Color of Change pact we are working to make sure that we are both finding candidates that will work to make our communities more safe and more just, and to work to find alternatives to incarceration.”
This story is part of Kids Incarcerated, a Teen Vogue series on youth incarceration in the United States for National Youth Justice Awareness Month.