Criminal InJustice† is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal InJustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
Another Shame of the Nation ~ Juvenile Life Without Parole
by nancy a heitzeg
On March 20, 2012, The Supreme Court of the United States will hear Oral Arguments in the cases of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs. Both cases, argued on Eighth Amendment grounds by Equal Justice Initiative, involve 14 year old boys – sentenced to die in prison for their involvement in homicides. Miller had a documented history of abuse, and Jackson, an accessory but not the gunman, was charged in a felony murder case, an Arkansas store robbery gone wrong.
But, as always, much more than the fate of these two rests on this case. At stake is the fate of more than 2500 persons serving Life without Parole for crimes committed while under the age of 18, some, all future redemption denied, when they were as young as 11 years old. 73 of these 2500 were under the age of 14 at the time of the commitment offense.
One might also argue that our status as a “civilized” nation rests, at least in part, on the Court’s judgment here. The U.S. is the only country in the world that practices JLWOP, and remains, with Somalia, one of two nations in the world which has refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a document which expressly forbids this very practice.
And, as in the 5-4 Roper v. Simmons (2005) and Sullivan v. Florida/Graham v. Florida (2010) which finally finally finally abolished the death penalty and Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) for non-homicide offenses respectively, the fate of these youth and the moral compass of the nation will rest on the whims of one Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Too much responsibility for Just One Man….
It should come as no surprise that the states with the highest rates of JLWOP sentences are the largely White/disproportionate incarcerators of Blacks, Pennsylvania and Michigan, followed closely by Louisiana – Incarceration Capital of the World, Florida (the state noted for the youngest JLWOP sentencing in the Lionel Tate case), and California, the Birthplace of the Contemporary Prison Industrial Complex. No surprise either that the race class gender disparities in these sentences are even greater than the incredible skew found in the adult system or that the majority of these youth are first time offenders, have public defenders and waive their rights while failing to comprehend the Miranda warning. (A recent study found that over half of the more 200,000 youth tried as adults each year did not understand key terms in Miranda since the language was beyond their reading level.)
The graphic speaks for itself — courtesy of Amnesty International.
I don’t have a lot of words left to explain an inexplicable state of affairs — one that rests on the notion that youth who are legally barred by immaturity from drinking, voting, driving, consenting to sex, seeking gainful employment, emancipating themselves from parents or school, joining the military, gambling, or smoking are deemed somehow legally responsible now and forever in the singular realm of crime and punishment.
I will say this..
When working with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, there are so many sad reminders of the inhuman toll of JLWOP. 66 of Louisiana’s 159 juveniles sentenced to life without parole were committed for non-homicide offenses and will have to individually petition for release under Graham. Last year, JJPL staff celebrated a visit from one of their recently freed “Graham Kids”, Robert Johnston. He had served nearly 50 years at LSP Angola for an armed robbery committed when he was 16. In 1961. This “Graham Kid” was now an old old man.
This year, students spent two days opening and sorting 10 large boxes of mail sent on behalf of Christie Cheramie. Cards and notes to her from all over the world. Pleas for a pardon to Governor Bobby Jindahl. To President Barack Obama. To Anyone. This is now her only hope — Christi plead guilty under threat of the death penalty, as so many JLWOP cases have, and as a result, cannot appeal her conviction.
And every year, as we climb up and down the stairs to and from JJPL’s second floor offices, we are confronted, face to face, with large posters of Louisiana’s JLWOP children.
And so, I will just leave you with Charles…