Throwaway Kids: Is It Time to Rethink Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentencing?

Next week the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments in two historic cases. Incredibly, the cases — from Alabama, Miller v. Alabama, and Arkansas, Jackson v. Hobbs — concern the practice, unique to the United States, of imprisoning teenagers for the rest of their natural lives for crimes committed while they were still developing into adulthood. The U.S. stands utterly alone on this one — no other country in the world locks up its children for crimes committed before they could legally drive, join the military, vote or sometimes even get married.
Miller and Jackson are next in a line of cases decided recently by the Court addressing appropriate constitutional protections and punishment of youth. In Roper v. Simmons in 2005, the Supreme Court found the death sentence for any minor convicted of murder unconstitutional; in Graham v. Florida, five years later, the Court barred a life-without-parole sentence for a minor who committed a crime other than murder. The fundamental reasoning of these decisions was that undeveloped youthful judgment and moral sense make severe punishment cruel and unusual — and thus a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Last year, in J.D.B. v. North Carolina, the Court recognized that there is a heightened risk of coercion when children are subject to police interrogation without their parents or a lawyer in the room.

Our hope is that the Court continues in this vein and determines that, although the youth in Miller and Jackson were convicted of murder, their youth still gives them great capacity for change and should prevent them from being treated as worthless and hopeless throwaway kids. As a former juvenile court judge wrote in today's New York Times, the Justices should "apply the logic and the wisdom of their earlier decisions and affirm that the best time to decide whether someone should spend his entire life in prison is when he has grown to be an adult, not when he is still a child."
The ACLU is currently litigating a separate case on behalf of several people in Michigan convicted of crimes while younger than 18 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. ACLU affiliates around the nation have also been engaged in advocacy on these issues, in partnership with allies like the Campaign for Fair Sentencing for Youth.
How is it that our government continues to punish young people as adults while they are not yet fully developed and mature enough to behave as adults and follow the law — and who are often, as are the youth in the two cases before the Supreme Court next week, reeling from horrific trauma experiences, poverty, neglect, mental illness, drug abuse and suicide attempts?
We must believe in redemption and rehabilitation. If not for our children, for whom?

This post is reprinted with permission from the Blog of Rights, an online publication from the ACLU.

Tanya Greene currently serves as Advocacy and Policy Counsel at the national ACLU office. She is affiliated with the Center for Justice and her work focuses on criminal justice issues, including the death penalty, indigent defense, solitary confinement and juvenile justice. Ms. Greene has worked as a capital defense practitioner for almost 15 years. Ms. Greene received her J.D. from Harvard Law School after graduating from Wesleyan University with a double major in Sociology and Afro-American Studies. She is an active member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Conference of Black Lawyers.
*Photo at top by Flickr user laura padgett

Updated: February 08 2018