Friday, January 16, 2015

Living and Dying Behind Bars: The Implications of Juvenile Life Without Parole

To the outside world, fifteen-year-old Jacob Ind seemed to have it together. He got good grades, was a member of the debate club, and even played on the high school football team. But behind closed doors, his life was out of control. He never felt loved. Not by anyone. Not by his mother who was cold, critical and distant, and certainly not by his alcoholic stepfather who was a mean drunk. Jacob dreaded coming home. His mother never shied away from telling him that he was an unwanted mistake and it was difficult to escape his stepfather’s violent rages and inappropriate sexual predilections. For years Jacob and his older brother Charles suffered horrific sexual abuse at the hands of their stepfather, Kermode Jordan. Jordan would wait for the boys to come home, sneak up behind them and then drag them into the bathroom where he would tie them to the toilet, undress them and proceed to abuse them. Sometimes Jacob’s mother would taunt him and sometimes she would even join in.  He couldn’t take it anymore. In the early morning hours of December 17, 1992, Jacob shot and killed his mother and stepfather. On June 17, 1994, he was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder. As required under Colorado law at the time, he was given a mandatory sentence of life without parole. Now thirty-seven years old, Jacob has spent the majority of his life behind bars. The entire trajectory of his life was determined before he was even old enough to drive a car. Jacob, like the hundreds of individuals sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes that they committed as children, will likely die behind bars.

 The United States is the only country in the world that imposes life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles. The practice of sentencing youths to life without parole is highly condemned by the international community and it is considered by many to be a human rights violation. Every year in the U.S. children as young as thirteen are sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of reentering society. Many believe that juvenile life without parole or “JLWOP” is tantamount to a death sentence. Currently, approximately 2,570 individuals in the United States are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes that they committed as juveniles.

On June 25, 2012, in the landmark case Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the practice of imposing mandatory life sentences on juveniles without the possibility of parole. The Court held that the mandatory life-sentencing scheme violated the Eighth Amendment’s proscription against cruel and unusual punishment when applied to individuals who were below the age of eighteen when they committed the offense. This ruling had the effect of striking down the mandatory sentencing laws that were in place in nearly thirty states. Miller, follows in the wake of two other landmark cases: Roper v. Simmons, which banned the use of the death penalty for juvenile offenders in the United States, and Graham v. Florida, which banned the use of life without the possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses.

The majority of youth sentenced to life without parole is concentrated in just five states: California, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Prior to Miller, the majority of juvenile life without parole sentences were imposed on teenagers from states where courts were required to sentence young people to life without parole based solely on the crime that they were convicted of and without any consideration of factors relating to the teenager’s age or life circumstances. While Miller does not ban the practice of JLWOP completely, it requires judges to consider factors such as a young person’s age, immaturity, environment and mitigating circumstances when deciding whether a JLWOP sentence is appropriate. However, despite the Supreme Court’s ban on mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders, according to several reports, as of June 2014, over half of the states that previously required life without parole for juveniles convicted of homicide offenses have yet to pass laws repealing the practice. Moreover, although the Miller Court banned the use of mandatory JLWOP sentences, it failed to address the issue of what possible remedies might be available to individuals such as Jacob Ind, who were convicted as teenagers under their respective state’s mandatory sentencing laws. On December 12, 2014, the Supreme Court agreed to consider the issue of whether the ban against mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences can be applied retroactively to individuals already serving life sentences. The case, which will come before the Court this spring, involves George Tocas, a Louisiana man who received a life sentence in 1984 after he allegedly shot another young man during a failed robbery attempt. Tocas was seventeen years old at the time of the shooting. He has spent the last thirty years in prison.

So how does a child end up locked up for life? While many of the young people sentenced to life without parole have committed heinous crimes, more than a quarter of the people serving JLWOP sentences were convicted of felony murder or accomplice liability (aiding and abetting). In such cases, young people are being sentenced to life without parole even though they were not the primary perpetrator of the crime and in some cases may not have been present when the crime was committed. According to Human Rights Watch, sixty percent of the youth given life without parole were first time offenders with no prior criminal convictions and more than seventy percent were under the age of fifteen at the time of their offense.

Like John, many of these young people have been subjected to extreme abuse and neglect and experienced high levels of trauma as children. A 2012 study conducted by the Sentencing Project, which surveyed 1,579 individuals across the U.S. currently serving JLWOP sentences, found that seventy-nine percent of individuals sentenced to life without parole as children were exposed to violence and abuse in their homes and communities. Nearly half of all juvenile “lifers” have experienced some level of physical abuse and the rates are even higher for women. Over seventy-five percent of women sentenced to life without parole as children have histories of sexual abuse and about twenty percent of juvenile lifers report being victims of sexual abuse. A high percentage of young “lifers” have experienced extreme poverty and various forms of socioeconomic disadvantage. According to the study, close to one-third of this population grew up in public housing and in the period immediately preceding their incarceration, about eighteen percent did not live with an adult relative from their immediate family. Many young people who end up with JLWOP sentences have experienced homelessness, mental health issues, and have lived in group homes or foster care.

Another commonality amongst the population of juveniles serving life sentences without the possibility of parole is that they are predominantly people of color. Seventy three percent of the juveniles, who receive life without parole, are people of color and fifty-six percent are African-American. When compared to their white counterparts, a disproportionate number of African-American, Hispanic and Native American youth are sentenced to life without parole. Nationwide, the rate at which African-American youth receive life without parole sentences is ten times greater than the rate for white youth.

While many believe that children who commit “adult crimes” should be charged and sentenced as adults, this philosophy contradicts the reality of what we know about the physical, mental, and emotional developmental capacities of children. Young people tend to act more irrationally and erratically than adults and are more prone to negative outside influences and peer pressure. Because of their age and immaturity, by nature juveniles are less capable of controlling their impulses, using logic to guide their conduct, and thinking through the potential consequences of their actions.

Psychological research shows that children are more likely than adults to make decisions based on emotions such as fear, anger, or joy instead of relying on logic and reason. Experiencing stress and trauma only increases the likelihood that emotion will prevail over rationality in juveniles’ decision-making and thought processing. Given how stress increases the likelihood that emotion rather than reason will guide children’s choices, it becomes easier to understand how many of the young people sentenced to life without parole came to commit the crimes that led to their convictions. This is especially true when consideration is given to the difficult upbringings that many juvenile lifers have.

Researchers have found immense differences between the brains of adults and the brains of adolescents particularly with regard to the development of the frontal lobe, the portion of the brain responsible for “regulating aggression, long-range planning, mental flexibility, abstract thinking, the capacity to hold in mind related pieces of information, and perhaps moral judgment.” The frontal lobe in children is underdeveloped and has not yet reached a stage where it can perform these types of functions properly. As children grow older, enter puberty and transition into adulthood, the frontal lobe develops further, thus increasing one’s ability to think critically, make decisions in consideration of the future, and use logic to consider the long term impact of a given course of action. Therefore while children may indeed commit crimes as violent and as lethal as adults, “their blameworthiness is different by virtue of their immaturity.” Many of the young people sentenced to life without parole are still in the process of growing up and forming their identities.  They are not yet adults and who they will become is not yet set in stone. However the practice of sentencing children to life without parole seems to send the opposite message: this is who you are and this is who you will always be.

Because juvenile offenders are still developing, they are much more amenable to reform and rehabilitation than adults. It may still be possible to rehabilitate these young people into productive members of society but in order for this to occur, states must move away from the punitive practice of sentencing children to die in prison and turn their attention towards prevention, reform and rehabilitation.

As with many of the most pressing issues of our day, lawyers are at the forefront of the movement to end the imposition of life without parole sentences on juvenile offenders using various avenues including litigation, education, and activism to incite change. Whether we are prosecutors, defense attorneys or judges, as agents of the law it is our duty to ensure that our criminal justice system treats the youngest members of our society fairly and in accordance with their development and emotional capacity.  We can do this by moving away from a system that sentences children to die in prison towards one focused on education, rehabilitation, and reformation of our young people.

Ife Afolayan
Senior Editor, Criminal Law Practitioner

Photo by via Flickr

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