Death penalty opponents were overjoyed at the US Supreme Court’s decision last March to join nearly every other nation on the globe and ban teen executions.
But that joy should be tempered by yet another appalling fact about America’s criminal justice system: The US locks up more juveniles for life without parole than all other nations combined.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International count more than 2,000 US inmates currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles.
As is the case with the death penalty, the no-parole sentences are not race-neutral. Black teens are ten times more likely to receive a no-parole life sentence than white youths. They are even more likely to get those sentences when their victims are white, and when they are tried by all-white or majority- white juries. Those same juries seldom considered their age as a mitigating factor.
Also, a significant number of those sentenced to no-parole sentences did not actually commit murder, but were participants in a robbery or were at the scene of the crime when the death occurred. The majority of the teens slapped with the draconian sentence had no prior convictions, and a substantial number of them were 15 or younger.
The harsh sentence and the racial disparity is so glaring that former Congressman Ron Dellums and the National Bar Association, an African-American legal group, have demanded that courts and DAs drastically reform their policy of treating teen offenders as adults when asking for and imposing no-parole life sentences.
Their plea so far has fallen on deaf ears.
Judges and juries say that violence is violence no matter the age of the perpetrator, and that punishment must be severe to deter crime. Prosecutors and courts in the 42 states that convict and impose no-parole life sentences on juvenile offenders, with Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Michigan and Florida leading the pack, have repeatedly rejected challenges that teen no-parole sentences are a violation of the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Though murder rates have plunged to near record lows, the public is still scared of violent crime, especially of young persons who commit violence. Lawmakers are loathe to do anything that would make them appear soft on crime. That is still considered the kiss of death for political careers.
Yet most experts agree that children don’t have the same maturity, judgment or emotional development as adults. In a report on juveniles and the death penalty, Amnesty International found that a number of child offenders sentenced to death suffered severe physical or sexual abuse. Many others were alcohol or drug impaired, or suffered from acute mental illness or brain damage. Nearly all were below average intelligence.
Despite Hollywood sensationalism and media-driven myths about rampaging youth — and the oft-cited example of Florida youth Lionel Tate, who committed murder and got a relatively lenient sentence only to be accused of committing another crime — most experts insist that children are not natural-born predators. If given proper treatment, counseling, skills training and education, most can be turned into productive adults.
The irony is that the Supreme Court’s ban on executing those who kill as teens may actually work against no-parole reform efforts. Since states no longer can execute juvenile offenders, then it seems far more humane to sentence them to life sentences.
Victims’ rights advocacy groups claim that taking away the option of no-parole sentences for juveniles will weaken crime deterrent. This makes it even tougher to make the case that counseling, treatment and education are more effective ways to redeem young people who commit crimes than harsh sentencing.
Then there’s the question of race. The racial gap between black and white juvenile offenders is vast and troubling. The rush to toss the key on black juveniles has had terrible consequences in black communities. It has increased poverty, fractured families and further criminalized a generation of young black men.
Those who commit crimes — especially murder, no matter what age they are — must be punished. But the punishment should not only fit the crime, it should also fit the age of the person who committed it, and the circumstances that drove the person to commit his offense.
If juvenile offenders can turn their lives around with the right help, they deserve that chance, and judges should be able to give it to them.
The Supreme Court majority that voted to ban juvenile executions called them shameful. They recognized that the practice cannot and should not be justified on moral or legal grounds, and that it was past time to put a stop to them.
The same can be said about teen no-parole life sentences.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and the author of “The Crisis in Black and Black.” He hosts the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable from 10 to 11 a.m. Saturdays at the Lucy Florence Coffeehouse, 3351 W. 43rd St., Leimert Park.