Monday, 31 October 2011


Cruel & Unusual? 

Once children are prosecuted as adults, they become subject to the same prison sentences that can be imposed on adults, including in forty-two states, the sentence of life without parole.  In twenty-seven of the forty-two states in which youth can be sentenced to life without parole, the sentence is mandatory for anyone, child or adult, found guilty of certain enumerated crimes.
Is such punishment fair for juvenile offenders? 

In March 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons  that the death penalty for crimes committed by people under 18 violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishments." That might have surprised the people who ratified the Amendment in 1791, many of whom found such executions neither cruel nor unusual. But the Court said that the meaning of the Amendment changes with "evolving standards of decency." 

Their decision has convinced prosecutors and activists that the next legal battleground in the U.S. will be over life sentences for juveniles. 
'Unformed' Personalities 

In the Supreme Court's decision, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said teenagers were different, at least for purposes of the ultimate punishment. They are immature and irresponsible. They are more susceptible to negative influences, including peer pressure. And teenagers' personalities are unformed. "Even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile,"Justice Kennedy concluded, "is not evidence of irretrievably depraved character."
States that don't allow and/or have abolished life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are Alaska, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, New Mexico, New York, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.  Lawmakers in Michigan, where at least 306 lifers were juveniles when sentenced, introduced legislation in November to abolish life-without-parole sentences 
for young offenders (See Second Chance Legislation Organization - Michigan)

In terms of gender, all but a tiny fraction (2.6 percent) of the child offenders serving life without parole are male.

Almost 93 percent of the youth sentenced to life without parole were convicted of homicide.

The specter of “super predators” created much of the national furor over youth violence. Politicians and the public thought their communities were (or would be) besieged by vicious teenagers with long records of crime. Yet few of the child offenders sentenced to life without parole fit this super predator profile. Recent research suggests that 59 percent of youth offenders received a life without parole sentence for their first-ever criminal conviction of any sort. These youth had neither an adult criminal record nor a juvenile adjudication.  

From 1962 until 1981, an average of two youth offenders in the United States entered prison each year with life without parole sentences. Beginning in 1982, the number began to rise markedly, peaking at 152 youth in 1996. Although the number has declined since 1996, it has never returned to the much lower figures from the 1960s to mid-1980s.

Comparing the imposition of life without parole sentences on children and adults convicted of murder casts additional light on the increasing punitiveness toward child offenders. As shown by research, 11 out of the 17 years between 1985 and 2001, youth convicted of murder were more likely to enter prison with a life without parole sentence than adult murder offenders.   Even when death sentences are included, in one quarter of the same seventeen years, child murder offenders were more likely to receive either the death penalty or life without parole than adults. In the remaining years, adults were only slightly more likely to enter prison with either life without parole or death sentences (between 1.3 and 0.1 percentage points)—a remarkable finding given that during most of the years studied, large numbers of states had abolished the juvenile death penalty. On its face, this data suggests that states have often been more punitive towards children who commit murder than adults. At the very least, it suggests age has not been much of a mitigating factor in the sentencing of youth convicted of murder.

Theorically, LWOP - the most severe form of a life sentence - is available for juvenile criminals in about a dozen countries, including the United States. But a joint report issued by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in 2005 found juveniles serving such sentences in only 3 other countries:  Israel has 7, South Africa has 4 and Tanzania 
has 1. (Total 12)  By contrast, the report counted some 2,250 people in the United States serving life without parole for crimes they committed before turning 18.  More than 350 of them were 15 or younger, according to the report.

To house the "lifer" population, each year California spends at least $31, 000 per inmate, at an annual cost of nearly $1 billion out of a total annual adult correctional budget of close to $6 billion. As they get older, their incarceration will become far more expensive because of increased health-care costs.  Beyond costs and logistics, their continued incarceration raises difficult moral and ethical questions. Should we continue to detain inmates who have committed violent -- often shocking -- crimes, even when prison counselors and others who have worked with them closely testify that they are fully rehabilitated and no longer present a danger to society? At what point are we able to forgive individuals for crimes committed decades before, often when they were in their teens or early 20s? (SF Gate 7-1-05)

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