Why Sentencing Child Offenders in America to Life in Prison Without Parole Should Be Abolished
By Barbe Stamps
Excerpt from "THE REST OF THEIR LIVES" a Joint Report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, 2005
"Doing time" is difficult for any prisoner. Prisons are tense, cheerless, and often degrading places in which all inmates struggle to maintain their equilibrium despite violence, exploitation, lack of privacy, stringent limitations on family and community contacts, and a paucity of opportunities for meaningful education, work, or other productive activities.
But “doing time” is particularly challenging for those who come to prison as adolescents or very young adults. They often lack the physical and mental coping mechanisms that older adult prisoners use to maintain their mental health and self-respect. Not only are teens ill-equipped to handle prison, it is also an unlikely place for them to gain the life experiences and education necessary for healthy mental and physical development. Penitentiaries in the United States are not designed to further rehabilitation, and youth offenders sentenced to life without parole are often barred from participating in the few programs that do exist. And youth offenders serving life without parole face an additional and daunting challenge—they must come to terms with the fact that they will live in prison for the rest of their lives.
No one, offenders included, expects prison to be a pleasant place. Upon incarceration, all inmates must face the taxing psychological and physical challenge of adjusting to prison, and some fail or just barely pass the test. Prisoners soon learn that their psychological and physical survival depends on emotional control, heightened guardedness, resistance to or modeling of violence and aggression, and an ability to negotiate the deceptive behaviors of others. As one youth offender said, “[M]y life in prison has been like living in hell. It’s like living and dying at the same time, and with my sentence the misery never ends. Life in prison is no life at all. It is a mere existence.
There is a considerable incongruity between the physical or mental immaturity of young prisoners and the kinds of experiences and people prison forces them to confront. Starting in the 1960's, sociologists and psychologists found that the negative psychological effects of imprisonment increase as incarceration continues, but begin to reverse as prisoners near the time of release. Offenders serving life without parole know that they will never leave prison, meaning that for some, the negative effects of imprisonment can be expected to increase and indeed, may never lessen.
Youth offenders recall experiencing a wide range of emotions while adjusting to prison. They have reported initial feelings of fear, anger, loneliness, or hopelessness. Some youth offenders contemplated or even attempted suicide. Those who had been in prison for ten years or less were still in the midst of the adjustment process.
Everyone in prison experiences isolation and loneliness. It is a direct function of being cut off from family, friends, and the rest of society. One young man who came to prison at age fifteen, and who is now twenty years old, wrote: “Every day I grow inside. But I have no room to grow in here . . . It’s lonely. Your surrounded by 1,500 people and it’s still so lonely.”
However, psychologists suggest that some prisoners, “especially those serving very long sentences [use] withdrawal and self-imposed isolation . . . as a defensive reaction to the anticipated loss of . . . outside social support.” Using isolation as a defense takes its toll on prisoners who may experience “protracted depression, apathy and the development of a profound sense of hopelessness.”
Most prisoners, particularly those serving long sentences, lose social support and family connections. The difference for youth offenders serving life without parole is that they are likely to be much more dependent on family relationships than older inmates and may suffer these losses at an earlier age, causing them to endure their loss longer than other inmates . *
Worldwide, there are only thirteen countries that theoretically allow child offenders to be sentenced to the most severe life sentence there is, including the United States: life in prison without parole.
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) ii.
By contrast, there are 2,225 people serving life without parole in the United States for crimes they committed before turning 18. iii.
Among this population of youth serving life without parole, 59% are serving the sentence for their first criminal offense and an estimated 27% are serving the sentence for felony murder - i.e., they were involved in a crime during which a murder took place, but did not take part in the murder itself. 16% of child offenders serving life without parole were between the ages of 13 and 15 when they committed the crime that put them behind bars for the rest of their lives. iv.
"Are you the same person you were when you were 14? Or even 16? Neither are the child offenders who have been discarded into our prison system without any hope of release, but our criminal sentencing laws ignore this obvious fact. As the Supreme Court said in the landmark decision, Roper v. Simmons, on the juvenile death penalty “any parent knows” and “scientific and sociological studies tend to confirm” that children possess a “lack of maturity . . . an underdeveloped sense of responsibility . . . [and take] impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions.” While a neuroscientist could explain to you the specifics of brain development, it doesn’t take a doctoral degree to know that kids act out, often don’t consider future consequences, and are extremely susceptible to peer pressure." v.
Yet in forty-two states -- and under federal law -- youth under eighteen who commit serious crimes may be tried as adults and upon conviction sentenced to spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
Currently, California has about 180 juvenile offenders serving the sentence of life without parole. 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. vi.
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?
Who shall decide?