By Pam Bailey and Rob Barton
The year 2005 ushered in 16 years of significant progress in criminal justice reform for juveniles, triggered by a Supreme Court ruling that barred the death sentence for individuals who commit crimes before the age of 18. That was followed by a ruling in 2010 against life without parole for juveniles who committed crimes that did not involve homicide. Then, in 2012, the county’s highest court extended the same protection to people who committed any crime as juveniles (even murder); in 2016, that ruling became retroactive.
Adolescence, said the majority opinion, is characterized by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk and inability to assess consequences” — all factors that dissipate with age and maturity. These rulings ushered in an era of “second look” acts that offer genuine second chances to people who have spent more than a decade behind bars after committing crimes as children or young adults. To date, D.C. and 25 states have passed second-look acts, offering hope to hundreds of individuals who otherwise would have grown old — if not died — in prison, despite having developed into people ready to contribute to their families and communities in ways that others without their hard-earned lived experience could not.
Unfortunately, that progress was delivered a serious blow recently, when the same Supreme Court — one now controlled 6-3 by conservatives — ruled that judges are not obligated to consider whether a juvenile defendant is “permanently incorrigible” before imposing a life-without-parole sentence. Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said that as long as judges consider defendants’ youth and their decisions are discretionary (not mandated by law), a specific consideration of rehabilitation potential is not required. (This does not make much sense to us, to be honest. How do you say you’re considering a child’s youth and not also recognize the fact that he or she is not yet fully “formed” and thus will, of course, change?)
Note that this case involved a 15-year-old who killed his grandfather during an altercation that ensued when the older man discovered the boy with his girlfriend. Now, we aren’t excusing any murder, but this does not appear to be premeditated. In addition, as The Washington Post pointed out in an editorial, “as is so often true of juveniles who behave violently, Mr. Jones had himself been the victim of physical abuse.” How could anyone think it is ok to sentence a kid of that age to die in prison, without giving him a chance to develop and change? In Jones’ case, by the time the Supreme Court ruled, he had already earned a GED and worked steadily in prison; his grandmother, the widow of his victim, also supports an opportunity for parole.
Communities are stronger for their contributions
This is an issue that hits close to home for Rob, since — just like the defendant in this case — a lot of his friends were recently released after being sentenced to life as juveniles (thanks to the new D.C. laws). They had all been labeled “super-predators,” the worst of the worst, unfit to ever frequent society again. In fact, to date, 67 individuals have been granted sentence reductions due to D.C.’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (six were denied, including Rob) and an estimated 400-600 more will qualify for hearings under the District’s Second Look Act (lifting the age ceiling from 18 to 25 for the time of the crime).
True, one member of the original group of individuals released has been accused of committing another crime, an incident a Post reporter used to editorialize against the law altogether. The reporter did not mention the enormously valuable contributions being made to family and community by most everyone else: One is working as a “credible messenger” to help other youth avoid his path. Another is serving the D.C. government as a “violence interrupter” by defusing conflict in the neighborhoods. Still another is teaching the construction skills he learned to kids from dysfunctional homes. And then there is the “former convict” who works with a District agency to inspect federal prisons to document the quality of their health care, programming and sanitation.
At one time, they were all just like the defendant in the most recent Supreme Court case, deemed irredeemable. More often than not, children age out of a tendency to be violent and disruptive. What we need to decide as a country is whether we will live up to our professed ideals (a commitment to civil rights and a belief in human potential). Or is retribution really what we are all about?
“The vast majority of states have taken note of the international human rights requirements regarding life imprisonment of children without the possibility of release,” Juan Méndez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, said in a recent report, before noting that the United States is the only country to continue the practice.
Life sentences for children are banned under numerous international laws, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child — for which the U.S. and South Sudan are the only two states to have signed but not ratified. A U.N. oversight body also has found that the sentence violates the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, since youths of color are more likely to receive it than whites. (In fact, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted this in her scathing dissent to the latest ruling: “The harm from these sentences will not fall equally. The racial disparity in juvenile life-without-parole sentences is stark: 70 percent of all youth who receive these sentences are children of color.”)
As citizens of a so-called democratic, free country, we should be ashamed of this distinction. We are all much more than the sum of our worst mistakes, and as soon as we as a society live this, we will be better for it.