CI: Another Shame of the Nation ~ Juvenile Life Without Parole

February 29, 2012 at 7:00 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Corrupt Judiciary, Corrupt Legislature, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights

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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.

Nearly unbearable.

And so, I will just leave you with Charles…


The story of Charles is incredibly sad.  At age 15, most kids do not fully understand the real life consequences and permanence of their actions.  To know that his intensions were so pure but his actions got out of hand is devastating.  Serving a lifetime in jail for committing a crime as a child is absolutely unacceptable in my books.  There was so much potential for him to learn from his mistake and live a life that may have made a difference in his society.  Instead his young life was thrown away without any remorse. 



pmlarsonmiller 5 Like

When I went to Louisiana State Penitentiary with Nancy Heitzeg and my classmates, our tour-guide told us a little bit about minors serving time there. Some are there for a period of 15 months and are not required to do hard labor in the fields; however, if they do anything wrong, such as fail to make their beds in the morning, their sentence can be extended and they will be doing the same work as adult prisoners. Even those who are not serving life sentences can easily end up doing far more time than was originally sentenced. 

The prison environment of psychological and physical abuse and control is inhumane for any person, but to throw a child in? Children are vulnerable, malleable, hormonal, and are in a stage of life when they are supposed to be figuring out who they are. Unfortunately, they do not get an opportunity or a second chance to figure that out for themselves - they are told who they are instead; and in the eyes of the United States Criminal Justice System, they are criminals, now and forever.

I'm only hoping that this practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole is ended after March 20th.  


 @pmlarsonmiller Exactly, children are not meant to be punished in this way, they are first trying to find their place in the world even with all odds against them! Some children get second chances but we know exactly who doesn't. It's not about right and wrong anymore its about who is involved and again who is being watched. Why is it that society feels this environment is helpful or protective? And to children? 

KayWhitlock 1 Like

 @pmlarsonmiller I especially appreciate this sentence that you wrote, pmlarsonmiller:  "The prison environment of psychological and physical abuse and control is inhumane for any person, but to throw a child in?"


Exactly.  Thank you for putting it so plainly.

McKenzieDaul 4 Like

Wow! The photo of the little boy walking to the prison doors. Extremely powerful! On another note, children are supposed to be our future. The job of those who are in charge is to teach and provide good lessons to children so when they get to the age of authority they can pass on the lessons they learned. When you take a look at this reality for many children (life without parole), their siblings, friends, other family members, picture a world that one should fear. Is that the lesson we should be teaching young children? Also, how are children supposed to know better when they don't know who to trust and what truly is right or wrong. Of course, the race, class, and gender factor into this all, meaning specific groups are chosen. As Dr. Heitzeg explained in class yesterday it's who is watched or followed that gets these types of sentences. Meaning children of color, children in poverty, overall children who live unfortunate lives the way it is because of the inequalities in everyday life. What do they have to look forward to? And instead of trying to encourage these children we push them out of schools and find every little way to punish or jail them. Sadly, life without parole for CHILDREN is just another part of this society that instead of teaching a lesson, proves the great inequalities and restriction of the basic human rights! Great article! 



pmlarsonmiller 2 Like

 @McKenzieDaul I agree, children are supposedly the future - I think the question is who's children? This is yet another way the law is used to abuse, weaken, and control communities of color and the poor. You don't see any rich white guy's kid in prison for life. 

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg 1 Like

 @McKenzieDaul thanks McKenzie -- appreciate your comments.


Yes yes yes -- children are supposed to be the future

KayWhitlock 3 Like

 @McKenzieDaul Thanks for being here, McKenzie. 


You're so is the selective following, the selective following, the profiling, that determines who will wind up in the prisons.  And all of it distorted by race and class - and also by sexuality and gender/gender identiy.


How cruel that a society would triage its children, sending so many to prison so needlessly.

PatriciaLevesque 4 Like

"One might also argue that our status as a “civilized” nation..."


It is largely due to JLWOP that for some we have already largely forfeited any claim to being civilized.  Less than a month ago I listened to a BBC broadcast on exactly this practice.  The overall opinion of Mr Damon and his guests was one of disgust for the American courts for the practice.  (It's a daily podcast, The BBC World Update with Dan Damon)


"we should most  fear those who would "protect" us"


Sad but true, most Americans do not understand that we have an illusion of freedom in the country, these children had no idea or comprehension of what was going on.  They did as their legal counsel (white? court appointed? /sigh) told them to do.  

KayWhitlock 3 Like

 @PatriciaLevesque Love the BBC World Update, and thanks for noting the Dan Damon commentary.


So much oppression and repression occurs at the intersection of "protection," "safety," and "security."  Code words for racism, state violence, a surveillance society, the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex.

KayWhitlock 3 Like

 @PatriciaLevesque And, that's a shame.  Because "safety" and "security" and "protection" can be framed within an unshakable framework of racial, gender, sexual, and class justice.

PatriciaLevesque 3 Like

 @KayWhitlock raised as a "Navy brat" I truly believed in the American "justice for all".  It has been a heartbreaking education to learn the truth of the school to prison pipeline and the prison industrial complex.


What has not changed is my belief that "justice for all" is achievable.  Education and awareness are vital,  but it is a little overwhelming.

Domino14 3 Like

" Christi plead guilty under threat of the death penalty, as so many JLWOP cases have, and as a result, cannot appeal her conviction."


what??  there are no appeals with guilty pleas no matter what??


that is just  wrong.. so wrong..   this is ALL so wrong...

KayWhitlock 3 Like

A perfect storm of racism, "get tough," and the reprehensible "youth superpredator" myth.  If there is such a thing as societal karma - and I believe there is - this is going to be a big part of ours. 


Praying for Kennedy's better angels to come forth, but I have such a grim view of this Supreme Court.  If anyone thinks that USSC is not one of the huge issues embedded in the upcoming presidential election, think again.


Thank you, Nancy.  Searing.

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg 3 Like

 @KayWhitlock A perfect storm indeed Kay -- just so ugly


And as you know -- i share your view of SCOTUS .. just look at what has happened since 2004..

RubySJones 4 Like

You read this stuff and it just makes you want to curl up in a ball because of the feelings of helplessness. Thanks be to people like you and RG who fight so hard every day to try and change it. It is unbelievable that this country would be one of two that has not abolished this barbaric practice. 


The tragic thing is that so many of the gun crimes committed in the five boroughs of New York are committed by the very young. No parental supervision, no care, nothing done to

counsel and keep them away from lethal weapons and then they get shunted off to some horrible prison for life. I always wonder where the adults who are supposed to be responsible for them are. I am talking 12-16 year old kids. How do they get these weapons? Recently, a fifteen-year old mistakenly shot an eight-year old who was buying chips in a store. The shooter was aiming at a 15-year old.


Why is this not a major campaign issue?


Thank you, Nancy. One inch at a time.

KayWhitlock 4 Like

 @RubySJones hey, Ruby, good to see you.  We must transform that sense of helplessness - and I know it well - into fierce determination and relentless persistence to change things. 


Kids as young as 11 years old being sentenced to life without parole.  Good God. Their brains haven't even fully developed. 


Why not a major campaign issue?  It will be as criminalization narratives run amok, all aimed at President Obama and then, secondarily, at other Democrats.

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg 4 Like

 @KayWhitlock  @RubySJones i just can't get over Miranda waivers being accepted even though the warning itself had vocabulary beyond the comprehension of these youthful suspects


Who are we????????????

KayWhitlock 4 Like

 @nancy a heitzeg  @RubySJones I have complicated thoughts about who we are/have become.  But for now, I will simply say that playing to mythic and racist criminal archetypes that stir unconscious fear and dread is much more important to most politicians than simple justice and humanity.  We excuse every abuse of civil and human rights with the lofty language of safety and security.


  1. […] for brutalizing children, especially if they are Black. It should be clear too that any number of Supreme Court rulings, any number of reports by the U.S. Department of Justice, any number of efforts towards so-called […]