Jody Kent Lavy is director and national coordinator of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
A year ago this week, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to impose on a child a mandatory sentence of life without parole. The court stopped short of striking down all life-without-parole sentences for children but required that judges consider a child’s maturity, home environment, role in the crime, potential for rehabilitation and other key factors before ordering this harsh penalty. Miller was the third Supreme Court ruling in three years to reaffirm the notion that children who run afoul of the law cannot be treated the same way as adults without consideration of their status as children because science tells us — as all parents know — they are fundamentally different.
Still, an investigation by the Center for Law and Global Justice found that the United States remains the only nation in the world known to sentence children to life without parole — a sentence to die in prison. While young people can commit serious crimes, the children most likely to receive this sentence are among society’s most vulnerable. Nearly 80 percent of youths sentenced to life without parole reported witnessing violence in their homes, according to the Sentencing Project; more than half witnessed weekly violence in their neighborhoods. Most never received treatment for the trauma they experienced at young ages.
A 2005 Human Rights Watch report found that African American youths are sentenced to life without parole at a per capita rate that is 10 times that of white youths convicted of the same crimes, and that more than half of youths who received this sentence had no prior record and, in many cases, had grossly inadequate legal representation. The vast majority of those sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as youths live in states where the sentence was mandatory.
Millerstruck down the statutes in at least 29 states, many of which have considered changes to comply with the ruling. Some states have focused on approaches that would impose the next-harshest available sentence. A few states — including Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Washington and Wyoming — have pursued compliance more broadly, seeking reforms that provide periodic reviews of sentences for youths convicted of serious crimes. This approach reflects the notion that children should be held accountable in ways that ensure they will have a second chance at life, increasing the likelihood that they will be motivated to change and be productive members of society when they return home.
The federal government, however, has been silent about addressing this issue.
This month a coalition of more than 65 organizations, including the National PTA, the American Correctional Association and the National Association of Social Workers, called on Attorney General Eric Holder to comply with the core tenets of Miller by reforming the Justice Department policy that allows children to be tried and sentenced as adults in federal court, where life sentences may be imposed. Six months earlier, Holder’s own Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence advised against transferring children to be tried in the adult criminal justice system. The Obama administration should set an example for states and take this practical but significant step to demonstrate that youths — even those convicted of serious crimes — should be held accountable in ways that reflect their status as children and their capacity to change.
Policymakers would also do well to look closely at model correctional programs such as the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Wisconsin. Mendota provides individualized mental health and behavior modification programs in a correctional setting and is run by mental health staff and funded in part by the state’s health department.
A 2012 evaluation by the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that the recidivism rates of youth who completed the Mendota program were less than half that of the comparison group. A study published in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency in May 2006 found that despite the Mendota Center’s substantially higher daily costs than those of typical secured juvenile corrections services, the program resulted in a shorter length of stay so the costs ended up being similar to those of secured corrections centers. Mendota also saves the state roughly $7.18 for every dollar spent by avoiding the expense of imprisoning recidivists. In contrast, it costs approximately $2.5 million to send a child to prison for life without the possibility of parole.
Policies that automatically lock children away with no hope of release are inconsistent with American values. The Obama administration has an opportunity to move our country forward on juvenile justice reform — an issue that was a priority to Barack Obama when he served in the Illinois legislature. The administration should implement meaningful juvenile justice reforms that uphold the dignity and human rights of our children and ensure that no child in our nation is deemed a throwaway person.