Life Sentences Should Not Apply to Children

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

Generic image (Thinkstock)
Generic image (Thinkstock)

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.

Sadly, these draconian responses are part of a greater historical pattern — one that has countenanced, for decades, the mistreatment of children charged with crimes large and small. Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, founded in 1900, provides just one powerful example. Children at Dozier, a home for boys accused of crimes like trespassing and stealing cars, suffered under horrific conditions and unspeakable abuses until the school’s reign of terror ended when it closed in 2011.

Known as the Florida State Reform School, at one point it was the largest facility of its kind in the country. Children sent there for everything from running away from home to assault were routinely violently beaten and abused; some even ended up dead. These children were considered irredeemable in the eyes of the state, much the way a teenager charged with a serious crime is today. The boys buried on Dozier’s grounds and those who survived its horrors should serve as a grim reminder of the obligation we have to treat children as children.

Anyone on the front lines of the post-Miller era would be wise to take stock of this history for guidance about what to do now. For starters, hyperbole, fear and racially coded pleas cannot continue to drive policy decisions about children and crime. Adult sentences cannot be the starting point that lawmakers use to craft sentences for young people.

Instead, legislators and policymakers should look to the wealth of multidisciplinary research around adolescent-brain development to identify appropriate sentences that account for the diminished culpability of young offenders and a child’s capacity for rehabilitation. Special attention must be given to addressing the root causes of a child’s behavior, and resources must be dedicated so that he or she can effectively navigate the path to maturity. 

Miller gave America an opportunity to address the way we treat our children by remedying the mistaken policies of the past with a sensible, balanced approach toward children in trouble with the law. Those tasked with shaping the future must work to ensure that every child — even those who have committed crimes — has the chance to grow, reflect and re-enter society as a law-abiding citizen.

Vincent Southerland is a senior counsel in the Criminal Justice Project at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

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