Life Sentences Should Not Apply to Children

Your Take: Despite Supreme Court ruling, states still condemn young offenders to lengthy prison terms.

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(Special to The Root) -- Nearly a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court reminded us of something that we all know and understand: Age matters. Children are immature and irresponsible. They do not appreciate the risks and consequences of their behavior.

Biologically, their brains are not yet fully developed. They can fall prey to peer pressure and other outside influences. As they grow older, young people change -- invariably for the better -- even when they commit the worst of crimes. These differences mean that children require different treatment from what is appropriate for adults. 

Relying on this fundamental, commonsense and scientifically supported truth, the court's decision in Miller v. Alabama barred mandatory life-without-parole sentences for young people who committed their crimes when they were under the age of 18. Miller restored some hope to the more than 2,000 individuals serving mandatory life-in-prison sentences for crimes committed before they were old enough to vote or serve in the military.

Unfortunately, many of those now tasked with molding the post-Miller landscape have chosen to ignore science, common sense and the court's command. Instead they have continued to call for lengthy, draconian sentences as an answer to adolescent criminal conduct.  

For example, in the immediate wake of the ruling, the governor of Iowa commuted the mandatory life sentences of youthful offenders in his state but instead required them to serve 60 years before seeking parole. Other states have left life without parole on the table for adolescents and added lengthy mandatory minimum sentences -- some up to 35 years' imprisonment -- before they can seek an opportunity for release.

Three months ago, Wyoming's governor signed a bill that eliminated life without parole for adolescents and replaced it with life. Juveniles in that state will become eligible for release after their sentences have been commuted to a term of years or they have spent at least 25 years in prison. Nebraska's post-Miller response, signed into law just last week, imposes a minimum sentence of 40 years on children convicted of serious offenses, though they may seek parole after serving two decades in prison. Life without parole, however, remains a sentencing option.  

As states grapple with Miller, a look back at what preceded the court's decision is in order. That reflective look reveals our often misguided penchant for quick and unwise decisions around crime and punishment, especially when it comes to children. 

The path to life-without-parole sentences for children is a prime example. The late 1980s and early 1990s were punctuated by modest spikes in violence among youngsters. In response, many states enacted sentencing reforms that were rooted in racial imagery about a new so-called superpredator (pdf) -- a menacing youthful offender of color who dwelled in America's urban centers and preyed on the innocent.

The media, academics and legislators portrayed these youths as exceedingly dangerous, violent and blameworthy. Appeals to reason were discarded in favor of the politics of fear and a perceived need to get "tough on crime." Laws were passed to ensure that young people were tried in adult courts and faced outsized punishments like life without parole.

Although the myth of the superpredator was debunked while violent crime among teenagers steadily declined, the harsh treatment of young offenders became the norm. Meanwhile, racially disparate sentencing left African-American youngsters six times more likely than their white counterparts to be sentenced to life without parole. The recent exoneration and release after 20 years of the teens accused and convicted of rape and assault in the infamous Central Park-jogger case is a stark reminder of how our superpredator hysteria, with its toxic racial overtones, destroyed the lives of innocent children.

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