Thirteen and fourteen year olds are too young to rent movies without the consent of their parents. They are not allowed to operate motor vehicles. They certainly can’t register to vote, or enlist in the armed forces.
Yet they are old enough to be prosecuted in our adult criminal justice system and sentenced to the harshest punishment allowed by law. According to a report published by the Equal Justice Initiative in November 2007, there are currently 73 people spending the rest of their lives in prison, without the possibility of parole, for crimes committed when they were still in middle school.
A life sentence without the possibility of parole is the harshest penalty available to youth in our criminal justice system. This level of punishment results in thousands of kids dying in prison for crimes they committed before their sixteenth birthdays. Roper v. Simmons, the 2005 landmark Supreme Court decision, outlawed the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles ages 16 and younger on the basis that it was cruel and unusual punishment to execute anyone for a crime committed as a juvenile. Is it not equally cruel to force someone to spend the rest of their days locked in a concrete cell for a crime they committed as a teenager?
The rest of the world seems to think so.
International law specifically prohibits sentencing of children to life imprisonment as stated in the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is one of “the most important human rights instruments adopted since the U.N. Charter and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” according to Matthew Waxman, Department of State principal deputy director of policy planning. Yet the United States continues to ignore the prevailing standards of human rights. To date, the United States and Somalia are the only two countries who have failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We are clearly out of step with the rest of the world, which is both disheartening and disgraceful.
How does a country, with a well-equipped juvenile justice system, founded on the principle that children are physically, emotionally and mentally different from adults and thus require protection and special consideration in the eyes of the law, continue to punish kids as if they were grown-ups? How do we subject teenagers to severe mandatory sentencing laws and harsh prison conditions often without any rehabilitative programs and no hope for freedom?
This punitive practice of treating kids as adults came out of the “adult time for adult crime” mantra of the 1990s. During this time, many states implemented laws to automatically transfer kids into the adult penal system if they committed a serious offense and forced judges to hand down mandatory minimum sentences, regardless of extenuating circumstances. Once a child is transferred out of the juvenile court system, there is often no consideration given to their level of mental and emotional maturity, the traumatic events of their past, or their amenability to rehabilitation.
This is particularly disturbing given the fact that the majority of young children who commit violent crimes have been physically and sexually abused, neglected, or abandoned, and are victims themselves. According to the Child Welfare League of America, the likelihood of a juvenile being arrested for a violent crime increased by 96 percent for those that had been victims of child abuse and neglect. Many of their crimes were committed impulsive responses to peer pressure, attempts to assert authority, or a result of simply trying protect themselves. Adolescents growing up under these traumatic circumstances cannot be expected to function at a level of maturity comparable to their peers, let alone people twice their age.
Thirteen and fourteen year olds in the United States who come into conflict with the law need to be rehabilitated by our criminal justice system and not destroyed by it. There should be a fundamental understanding that their brains are not fully-developed; they have the capacity for reform; they are not a lost cause. Why subject young kids to adult-sized punishments that strip them of their life and liberty, when we already have a juvenile system in place to help them become productive members of society?
It is time to adhere to the fundamental standards of decency followed by the rest of the world. It is time to respect the best interests of our children and restore their dignity. Unless life sentences without the possibility of parole are abolished for all youthful offenders ages 16 and younger, more kids will be condemned to spend the rest of their lives behind bars. If that is not cruel and unusual punishment, I don’t know what is.
Amanda Barstow is a 2009 master's candidate and is currently interning with the Office of the Independent Ombudsman for the Texas Youth Commission. She spent the last year researching the effects of prosecuting pre-teens as adults in the criminal justice system and co-authored a forthcoming report on this topic. Her primary policy interest is criminal justice reform with a focus on issues concerning youth.