Killing Them Softly: The Juvenile Justice System Is Complicit in Lost Lives

The United States has one of the most draconian prison policies in the world when it comes to juvenile offenders.

Kenneth Young was sentenced to life in prison for crimes he committed as a young teen. 
National Journal
Emily DeRuy
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Emily DeRuy
July 31, 2015, 7:32 a.m.

Ken­neth Young may nev­er see the in­side of the U.S. Cap­it­ol.

But law­makers on the Hill are us­ing his story to make a push for more hu­mane sen­ten­cing of child of­fend­ers. Right now, the United States is the only coun­try in the world that sen­tences chil­dren to life, fol­lowed in­ev­it­ably by death, in pris­on without pa­role.

That’s what happened to Young.

In the early sum­mer of 2000, the then-14-year-old ac­com­pan­ied his moth­er’s 24-year-old crack deal­er on a series of non­leth­al armed rob­ber­ies in Tampa. At 15, Young was tried as an adult and sen­tenced to four con­sec­ut­ive life terms.

More than 2,500 chil­dren, dis­pro­por­tion­ately young men of col­or, are serving sim­il­ar life sen­tences.

But now there is a push by law­makers on Cap­it­ol Hill, backed by sci­ent­ists and child­hood ex­perts, to re­cog­nize the fact that chil­dren are dif­fer­ent. They ar­gue that chil­dren’s brains are not fully de­veloped and they do not yet pos­sess the im­pulse con­trol or judg­ment skills of adults.

Lead­ing the charge are law­makers like Rep. Tony Carde­n­as, a Cali­for­nia Demo­crat and the first per­son of col­or to serve his Latino-heavy San Fernando Val­ley dis­trict, who has cham­pioned crim­in­al-justice re­form.

“This is without a doubt cruel and un­usu­al pun­ish­ment,” Carde­n­as said dur­ing a screen­ing at the Cap­it­ol this week of a doc­u­ment­ary called 15 to Life about Young’s life and fight for re­lease.

Carde­n­as was joined at the screen­ing by Rep. Bobby Scott, a Demo­crat from Vir­gin­ia, who re­cently in­tro­duced a bill with Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Jim Sensen­bren­ner of Wis­con­sin aimed at re­du­cing the num­ber of non­vi­ol­ent of­fend­ers be­hind bars.

As Con­gress bick­ers about everything from health care to Ir­an, there seems to be a bi­par­tis­an ap­pet­ite for re­form­ing crim­in­al-justice laws.

Earli­er this month, the Sen­ate ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee ap­proved a plan that would re­quire states to keep fig­ures on the num­ber of chil­dren of col­or be­hind bars. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion will an­nounce plans on Fri­day to give some pris­on­ers ac­cess to Pell grants to help pay for col­lege, a re­source that has been in­ac­cess­ible to them for 20 years.

Pub­lic fig­ures as di­verse as Pope Fran­cis and Newt Gin­grich have called for change. Gin­grich wrote in a 2012 op-ed with con­ser­vat­ive com­ment­at­or Pat No­lan, “We don’t let young people drink un­til they are 21, and they can’t sign con­tracts, vote or serve on jur­ies un­til they are 18. But there is one area in which we ig­nore teens’ youth and im­puls­ive­ness: our crim­in­al laws.”

“I think we’re see­ing a little light at the end of the tun­nel.” — Rep. Bobby Scott

In 2005, the Su­preme Court ruled it un­con­sti­tu­tion­al to im­pose the death pen­alty on ju­ven­ile of­fend­ers. Five years later, the Court said ju­ven­iles can­not be sen­tenced to life without pa­role for non-hom­icid­al of­fenses, and then two years after that it re­moved the murder ex­cep­tion and ruled man­dat­ory life without pa­role for chil­dren as cruel and un­usu­al pun­ish­ment.

But Young is still in pris­on.

Flor­ida said the 2010 Court rul­ing al­lowed Young, who has worked as an aide for a han­di­capped in­mate and whose only dis­cip­lin­ary re­port was for fail­ing to make his bed one Sat­urday morn­ing, to ob­tain a re­sen­ten­cing hear­ing. But a single judge re­mained un­con­vinced and set his re­lease for 2030, when he will be in his mid-40s.

Mean­while, men like Chris Wilson, who murdered a man at age 17, have been re­leased as a res­ult of more fa­vor­able re­sen­ten­cing hear­ings.

Wilson, who at­ten­ded the Cap­it­ol screen­ing, has flour­ished. He has gradu­ated from col­lege, speaks sev­er­al lan­guages, and works to con­nect un­em­ployed Bal­timore res­id­ents with jobs.

Over the last sev­er­al years, a hand­ful of states in­clud­ing Texas and Nevada have moved to lim­it the sen­tences that can be im­posed on ju­ven­ile of­fend­ers. Oth­ers, in­clud­ing Pennsylvania, the state with the most ju­ven­ile of­fend­ers be­hind bars for life, con­tin­ue to sup­port life without pa­role as a sen­ten­cing op­tion for chil­dren. Some states, in­clud­ing Alabama and Louisi­ana, have re­fused to re­con­sider the sen­tences of of­fend­ers who were giv­en life be­fore the Court rul­ings.

Ad­vocacy groups like the Cam­paign for the Fair Sen­ten­cing of Youth say the dis­crep­ancy is cruel.

Yet op­pon­ents of softer sen­tences for ju­ven­iles, some of them fam­ily mem­bers of vic­tims, are a vo­cal and heart-wrench­ing group. And they are of­ten aided by pub­lic out­rage at in­di­vidu­al cases that gain na­tion­al at­ten­tion. Just this week, a 15-year-old in Santa Cruz, Cali­for­nia was charged as an adult for the sexu­al as­sault and murder of his 8-year-old neigh­bor, in a case that has sparked pub­lic out­rage.

The de­cisions that have made of­fend­ers like Wilson and Young eli­gible for re­sen­ten­cing are so re­cent, and the num­ber of cases so few, that cal­cu­lat­ing re­li­able re­cidiv­ism rates for chil­dren ori­gin­ally sen­tenced to life without pa­role and then re­leased is dif­fi­cult. Op­pon­ents of­ten point to Wilson as an ex­cep­tion and pon­der what Young might do if re­leased.

Pro­gress will take a cul­tur­al shift, Carde­n­as said, which is no easy task, par­tic­u­larly as re­cent of­ficer-in­volved shoot­ings of un­armed black men cre­ate in­tense, of­ten ra­cial, di­vi­sions over how the crim­in­al-justice sys­tem should be struc­tured.

But ad­voc­ates are hope­ful that re­forms aimed at res­tor­at­ive rather than re­tributive justice will make their way through Con­gress. A case cur­rently un­der con­sid­er­a­tion by the Su­preme Court is set to de­cide wheth­er ju­ven­ile of­fend­ers who were sen­tenced to life without pa­role be­fore the Court’s 2012 de­cision have the right to a ret­ro­act­ive re­sen­ten­cing.

“It is rare that there is such agree­ment,” Jody Kent Lavy, dir­ect­or of the Cam­paign for the Fair Sen­ten­cing of Youth, said at the screen­ing.

“I think we’re see­ing a little light at the end of the tun­nel,” Rep. Scott agreed.

Un­til then, hun­dreds of ju­ven­ile of­fend­ers like Young will con­tin­ue to grow old be­hind bars.

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