(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.
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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