First, #CripTheVote, Now #CripCandidates?: Social Security Disability Benefits and Their Impact on Political Candidates with Disabilities

By: Amy B. Frieder

“We need diversity in elected office from the municipalities and school boards all the way up to the White House. We must look like our nation. When entire groups of people are left out of the halls of leadership, often times you overlook issues that are important.”

– Senator Tammy Duckworth, First disabled woman1 elected to Congress2


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “[1] in 4 U.S. adults – 61 million Americans – have a disability that impacts major life activities.”3 “At some point in their lives, most people will either have a disability or know someone who has [] one.”4 Although the disability community is the largest minority in the U.S.,5 disabled voters are often not included in conversations about “minority voters.”6 Still, people with disabilities have increasingly engaged in politics in recent years, as evidenced by the #CripTheVote movement.7 The #CripTheVote movement is a nonpartisan effort launched in 2016 by disability rights advocates Gregg Beratan, Andrew Pulrang, and Alice Wong to encourage candidates to listen to the disability community8 and to serve as an online space to activate and engage disabled people on policies and practices important to the disability community.9 A renewed sense of pride among the disability community has resulted in the use of the term “crip” in this instance as “a conscious act of empowerment through ‘reclaiming’ a former slur as a badge of pride.”10

This increased political engagement and pride has increased voter turnout, despite the difficulties these voters face at the ballot box.11 When reviewing electoral participation in the 2020 presidential election, one study in partnership with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission found that voter turnout among people with disabilities increased by 5.9 percentage points between 2016 to 2020—an increase that occurred across all disability types and demographic categories, including gender, race, ethnicity, age, and region.12 This increase was also higher than the 5.3 percent increase among voters without disabilities.13 Further, the turnout gap in a presidential election between people with and without disabilities decreased .6 percentage points.14 The study also revealed that employed people with disabilities are just as likely to vote as employed people without disabilities.15

Even though people with disabilities are becoming increasingly politically active,16 barriers continue to prevent many from running for office themselves. This Note argues one of these barriers includes how disabled people—an estimated twelve million people17—receive Social Security benefits. This Note reviews the scarcity of disabled political candidates and describes how Social Security benefits prevent people from running for office. Then, this Note evaluates potential arguments for litigation that a disability rights group could initiate. Finally, it concludes with an exploration of potential legislative changes.

I.    The Shortage of Disabled Candidates and Why It Matters

Even though one in four U.S. adults have a disability,18 only twelve percent of elected officials in local government, 6.9 percent in state government, and 6.3 percent in Congress have a disability.19 This underrepresentation means that the disability community has fewer advocates who are from their community and can directly make policy changes to uplift it.

Because of this deficit, disability is too often left out of both campaign platforms and subsequent policy changes. For example, candidates often run on job creation and other employment matters as a campaign priority;20 however, employment for people with disabilities should be, but often is not, included as a substantial part of non-disabled candidates’ platforms. By leaving out disability issues, politicians inadvertently exacerbate the employment barriers already experienced by disabled people, resulting in higher levels of unemployment.21 According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “[t]he unemployment rate for those with a disability [is] about twice as high as the rate for those without a disability” at 7.6 percent as compared to 5.1 percent in 2023.22 The BLS categorizes people as unemployed if they “did not have a job, were available to work, and were actively looking for a job in the 4 weeks preceding the survey.”23 Because the BLS excludes those individuals who are not available to work or are not actively looking for a job for any reason, the unemployment rate for disabled persons would be higher if the statistic accounted for disabled people not actively looking for a job.24 Indeed, about eight out of ten people with disabilities are not considered a part of the labor force in 2022, compared to three out of ten people without a disability.25 Although this disparity partly reflects the higher amount of older people in the unemployed, disabled population,26 persons with a disability overall are more likely to be out of the labor force than those with no disability across all age groups.27

In addition to employment disparities, people with disabilities face many barriers to socio-economic inclusion that federal programs are designed to mitigate.28 As beneficiaries of many of these programs, disabled people are uniquely positioned to understand how to improve them. As Brooke Ellison, who has quadriplegia and was a candidate for the New York Senate, argues:

While it is troubling enough that our legislators do not look like the general population, this is exacerbated by the fact that people with disabilities are far more marginally affected by the results of policy measures. Critical and hotly-contested issues like cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income, cuts to Medicaid, cuts to Medicare, the elimination of independent living programs, cuts to Centers for Excellence and Developmental Disabilities, the growth of a National Paid Family Medical Leave Plan, funding for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, support for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—these are not mere political arguments for people with disabilities, but matters of life and death. The disability rights movement began with the rallying cry, “nothing about us, without us,” which implies that decisions regarding the lives and welfare of people with disabilities should not be made without the consultation of disabled people themselves. What more influential position than legislators to contribute to these conversations?29

Many barriers dissuade politically engaged, disabled people from running for and winning an elected office.30 A study investigating voter impressions of disabled candidates revealed that voters have a negative bias, regardless of the type of disability the candidate has.31 In fact, twenty percent of voters are likely to discriminate against a candidate who has used a wheelchair since birth to even higher rates of bias.32  Additionally, “over 70 [percent] of voters are less likely to vote for someone with bipolar disorder, 55 [percent] for a [candidate] with depression, and 50 [percent] for a candidate with HIV.”33 Furthermore, electability informs voter decisions.34 “[T]here [] comes a point when a voter looks at a ballot paper and says[,] ‘I’d like to vote for this candidate but they are not going to win because I know my neighbors won’t vote for them,” which “perpetuates a self-fulfilling prophecy.”35 Voters’ impressions on electability convince disabled people to not become candidates altogether, because they “think they will lose . . . [P]olitical parties don’t put them up because they think the same. Donors are suspicious that disabled candidates aren’t competitive, so they are also less likely to give money,”36 even though political spending strongly correlates to candidate success.37 These messages were reinforced when disabled people, for example, heard the public speculate38 “baselessly about Hillary Clinton’s health or tried to diagnose [Donald] Trump with psychological disorders.”39 This messaging was particularly harmful to disabled people who were “tied for better or worse to those candidates.”40

II.    Social Security Benefits

A.    History of the Social Security Act’s Disability Benefits

In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act (SSA) into law, which provided benefits to retired workers who were ages sixty-five and older.41 President Dwight Eisenhower expanded the SSA in 1954 by initiating the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program and providing cash benefits to people with disabilities starting in 1956.42 Congress further broadened the program, expanding who could qualify for benefits.43 Despite increasing the number of those potentially eligible for benefits, in 1980 Congress limited the amount of benefits that could be provided and established a periodic review to ensure continuing disability—both aimed at tightening the program.44 In response to concerns about these changes, Congress again amended the SSA in 1982 to protect people’s benefits during the review process.45 People appealing decisions on the cessation of their disability claim could “elect to have benefits and Medicare coverage continued pending review by an administrative law judge, and have an opportunity for a face-to-face evidentiary hearing at the reconsideration level of appeal.”46

Congress continued to tweak Social Security benefits from 1984 through 1998, until President Clinton signed the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act into law in 1999.47 The Act attempted to improve disability program’s work incentives by prohibiting the Social Security Administration from initiating continuing disability reviews while beneficiaries are using a voucher that can obtain vocational rehabilitation services, employment services, and other employment support services.48 Despite these increased incentives to return to work, benefits can still be revoked if a person returns to work or participates in a rigorous new activity because the individual can be declared as no longer disabled under the SSA.49

Perhaps the most pertinent aspect of the SSA that may interfere with a disabled candidate’s ability to run for office is the definition of “disability.” The SSA provides the following definitions:

(A) Inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months; or

(B) In the case of an individual who has attained the age of 55 and is blind (within the meaning of blindness as defined in section 216(i)(1)), inability by reason of such blindness to engage in substantial gainful activity requiring skills or abilities comparable to those of any gainful activity in which the individual has previously engaged with some regularity and over a substantial period of time.50

An overinclusive interpretation of “substantial gainful activity” could mean that people who are unable to work but can contribute to their community in some way, such as through an elected office, would be precluded from contributing without risking their SSDI benefits.

B.   How Social Security Benefits Prevent Disabled People from Running for Office

The Social Security benefits program hinders campaign accessibility for prospective disabled candidates. In 2019, the National Council on Independent Living launched the nonpartisan Elevate Campaign Training program as the first national campaign training for people with disabilities.51 Through this program, prospective candidates openly express that the Social Security Administration has deterred their candidacy.52 The organization’s Civic Engagement and Voting Rights Director at the time, Sarah Blahovec, shared on Twitter that “the absolute worst part of [her job] is having to deliver the news to a disabled person on SSDI that they can’t run for office (usually an unpaid local office) without losing their benefits. Today it was to a disabled veteran. #CripTheVote.”53 Further, she explained that this prohibition “includes positions that involve only a few hours a month, far from a 40-hour work week.”54

Disabled candidates who are Social Security beneficiaries can lose their benefits even if they lose their election, because whether their activity is “substantial” and “gainful” is not predicated on the outcome of their election. Blahovec wrote, “Last month I fielded a call about a cancer patient who ran for his local city council. He lost his benefits. And the Social Security Administration doesn’t even tell people they will penalize them for running for office.”55 This expansive interpretation of “substantial gainful activity” as applied to campaign activity is problematic because many disability beneficiaries financially depend on those benefits. Yet the Social Security Administration may not be the only agency withholding benefits from disabled candidates because similar withholdings may also exist in other federal programs, such as Veteran Affairs disability compensation.56

Why should someone who is disabled and unable to work risk losing their benefits if they run for office, especially if they are running for meaningful local positions that may be less competitive, unpaid, and not a significant time commitment? Such offices can greatly impact disabled communities and are important steppingstones for upward mobility in a political career. For example, Aaron Kaufman, who has cerebral palsy and uses a walker, was appointed to the Maryland House of Delegates after first serving since 2010 as an elected official in his county’s Democratic Central Committee, a volunteer position.57 This appointment opportunity arose when a last-minute vacancy opened in his district after the incumbent state legislator decided to run for another office minutes before the filing deadline.58 He was nominated to replace the incumbent on the ballot.59 Kaufman, who is the first member of Maryland General Assembly to have a physical disability,60 recognized the importance of his twelve years of volunteering that helped him develop critical relationships to achieve his party’s appointment in a state where more than a quarter of all sitting state legislators were appointed, rather than elected.61 This ability to build sustainable relationships will continue to help him as a legislator.62 Because Kaufman was employed as a political organizer before his appointment, Kaufman did not have Social Security benefits.63 But what if he relied on Social Security benefits? He would have had to decide between putting his name on the ballot for a noncompetitive election and risk losing his benefits, or not running at all. Competitive elections make the risk of losing benefits a more dangerous gamble.

This risk is one that many people with disabilities are unwilling to take. When asked if campaigning is a “substantial gainful activity” 64 and if running for office can affect a person’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments or Social Security Disability (DIB) benefits, 65 the Social Security Administration responded that “determinations are necessarily fact-specific and must be performed on a case-by-case basis. . . . Holding an elected office, even if part-time or unpaid, is work that the beneficiary should report,” which would potentially “initiate a review to evaluate whether the beneficiary continues to be disabled under the Social Security Act.”66 As a result, a disabled person who is unable to work but seeks to get involved in their community by running for an uncompetitive office involving periodic, unpaid meetings could get their benefits pulled by the SSA. “Regardless of earnings, a beneficiary’s demonstrated ability to work, or perform activities similar to work, may show that the beneficiary no longer meets [the Social Security Administration’s] standard for disability.”67 As Sarah Blahovec explains:

It really is a case-by-case decision by [the Social Security Administration], but can be broken down into two main issues. First, [it] will evaluate your campaign activities as potentially being a sign of improvement in their disability and ability to work. For someone to run for office if they are receiving SSI or SSDI, they don’t know whether [the Social Security Administration] will see this activity as a sign of medical improvement, and therefore have to decide whether it is worth the risk to run for elected office. In many cases, people decide that this is too big of a risk to take. Second, political activity is seen as substantial gainful activity.68

The Social Security Administration’s case-by-case approach and blanket view of political activity as substantial gainful activity are two roadblocks for members of an important underrepresented community who would otherwise have a path to elected office and increased political representation.

III.    Evaluating the Legal Arguments: Is there a Right to Candidacy?

If a disability rights group were to try to challenge the Social Security Administration’s cessation of benefits for political candidates because political activity is seen as substantial gainful activity, the group would likely face an uphill battle. This is the case even if advocates attempt to connect the right to candidacy to the right to vote and freedom to associate, and even if they compare the Social Security policy to impermissible filing fees and property requirements in an Equal Protection analysis.

A.    Linking Candidacy to the Right to Vote and Freedom to Associate

While some courts have explicitly rejected the right to run for office as a fundamental right,69 others have found that such a right exists in the United States70 and internationally.71 Some state courts and academics have even considered whether a state constitution guarantees a right to run for office.72 Short of recognizing the right to run for office as a fundamental right, the U.S. Supreme Court has linked the right to be a candidate with the right to vote.73 Similarly, candidacy and voting rights are sometimes closely linked.74 Indeed, when adjudicating restrictions on candidacy, the U.S. Supreme Court compared the right to candidacy with the right to vote.75 In his concurrence in Lubin v. Panish,76 Justice William Douglas expressed that “[v]oting is clearly a fundamental right. But the right to vote would be empty if the State could arbitrarily deny the right to stand for election.”77 Additionally, states cannot place an extra qualification on congressional candidacy, thereby impermissibly restricting the field of candidates when “election to the National Legislature should be open to all people of merit,” an idea which is essential for the “foundation for the Constitutional structure.”78

In the landmark election law case Anderson v. Celebrezze,79 Justice Stevens, writing for the majority, took a slightly different approach, in which he highlighted voters’ rights to choose the candidate in question rather than the candidate’s rights himself.80 “[O]ur primary concern is not the interest of [the] candidate[, John] Anderson, but rather, the interests of the voters who chose to associate together to express their support for Anderson’s candidacy and the views he espoused.”81 Under this approach, a disability rights organization could argue that the Social Security policy deprives the electoral interests of disabled voters who may choose to associate together through their support of a disabled candidate relying on benefits. Similar to how a “court must balance the right of the party to define itself [ideologically] against the individual’s right to run for office or vote for the candidate of their choice” in a First Amendment analysis of primary ballot access requirements,82 a court considering a challenge on the Social Security policy would balance the government’s interest in safeguarding the integrity of the Social Security benefits program83 against the disabled individual’s right to run for office or the right for others to vote for the disabled candidate of their choice.84

B.    Comparing the Policy to Filing Fees and Property Requirements (Equal Protection)

The disabled person’s decision to forgo disability benefits or run for office is closely aligned to over a century of election law policies stripping marginalized people of income or requiring property in order to participate in an election. Disability rights advocates may assert challenges to these Social Security policies under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, similar to those lines of cases considering wealth-based requirements to vote. Courts can consider these challenges by either treating the forfeiture of Social Security benefits as poll taxes, a wealth-based requirement, or exorbitant filling fees.

The forfeiture of benefits in order to run for office are analogous to impermissibly high filing fees or other impermissible property requirements. Filing fees were challenged when first introduced in the early twentieth century.85 For example, the North Dakota Supreme Court invalidated filing fees as impermissible property qualifications.86 Similarly, the Illinois Supreme Court struck down its filing fees because it found that these fees discriminated between candidates who can pay and candidates who cannot.87

Despite these state court decisions, poll taxes were not outlawed until fifty years later after the adoption of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964, which banned poll taxes in federal elections,88 and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1966 decision in Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections,89 which held that poll taxes in state elections violated the Equal Protection Clause.90 While a disability rights group could argue that forfeiting benefits is akin to paying a tax, a court may point out the difference between paying a mandatory fee to exercise a fundamental right and voluntarily electing to engage in an activity that results in losing optional benefits.

Another argument is that the Social Security policy effectively requires disability beneficiaries to forgo their benefits as property or other wealth if they choose to run for office. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kramer v. Union Free School District No. 1591 that a New York school board election law requiring voters to either have children in the schools or possess taxable real property violated the Equal Protection Clause.92 This comparison may be more similar to the disabled candidate’s situation than the poll-tax comparison above. However, the connection is still tenuous: a court may take issue with the difference between eligibility to vote and eligibility to place one’s name on the ballot.

The loss of disability benefits can also be equated to a large ballot fee, which serves as a financial barrier too high for disabled persons to run for office. The U.S. Supreme Court in Bullock v. Carter93 struck down high ballot fees in Texas as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.94 However, today, states commonly charge candidates up to one percent of an office’s annual salary and often require “some form of non-monetary ballot access,” such as a signature gathering alternative.95 Alternatives to filling fees do exist in some states.96 For example, Delaware incorporated disability benefits into its mechanism for determining whether a candidate qualifies for collecting signatures as an alternative to paying a filing fee for getting onto the ballot.97 A candidate running for office in Delaware must “receiv[e] benefits under the Supplemental Security Income Program for Aged, Blind and Disabled under Subchapter XVI of Chapter 7 of Title 42 of the United States Code” or have a State Election Commissioner determine that the candidate meets the federal “income and resources tests for such benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a), as applied to Delaware residents.”98

Ultimately, the impact of the Social Security Administration’s case-by-case evaluation of eligibility to include minimal political activity as “substantial gainful activity” is likely not as strong or straightforward as the impact of poll taxes for voters, property requirements for voters, or exorbitant filing fees for candidates. Such a tenuous comparison may not lend itself to a successful litigation strategy. Striving to achieve the desired policy change through legislation, on the other hand, may prove more successful.

IV.    Achieving Change through Legislation

The fact that the current Social Security policy is effectively disincentivizing disabled people from participating in their community through meaningful leadership and political representation should be concerning. In order to achieve a democratic republic, the electoral system must provide its most marginalized populations with sufficient social safety nets and guarantee them political agency so that they have the ability to organize and lead movements for collective liberation.99 The Social Security Administration’s current case-by-case approach leaves disabled would-be candidates guessing whether they will lose their benefits if they run for office, resulting in fewer disabled people choosing to run for office. An alternative, more straightforward approach would be to clearly demarcate what constitutes “substantial gainful activity.” This demarcation would allow disabled people to make a confident choice about whether they can financially run for office. Beneficiaries would not be left without the means to support themselves if they decide to run for a local elected office, which can amount to a volunteer, part-time position and is incomparable to full-time, paid work.

Such a change may be most feasibly actualized through legislation.100 Sarah Blahovec recently shared that her main concern is that “legislation like this won’t be able to pass Congress at this time.”101 In 2022, a bill was introduced to achieve the very aims of this Note by excluding any earned income and work performed by a candidate from consideration of eligibility for Social Security benefits.102 Although the bill has not moved forward in Congress, its lack of immediate success does not mean that legislative action cannot be successful in the future.

In future efforts, perhaps U.S. Representative Jamie Raskin can serve as a partner to pass such legislation, since he understands the need to have diversity of all kinds in the political process.103 For instance, Representative Raskin wrote:

But intertwined with the right to vote is the right to run for office as a candidate and, at least theoretically, to serve as a representative. Indeed, the right to vote and the right to run imply one another since the “fundamental principle of our representative democracy” embodied in the Constitution is that “the people should choose whom they please to govern them.” A law that gave women or racial minorities the right to vote but denied them the right to run for office would violate both their right to participate fully and the right of the voters to choose them as representatives.104

While Representative Raskin argued for electoral diversity in the context of political representation for citizens of Washington, D.C., the comparison is clear. If citizens of D.C. “cannot be confined to the role of consenting spectators in other people’s political and governmental process” and “have the right to become active agents in shaping national public discourse and debate, a right that includes the possibility of running for Congress,”105 then there is no true representative democracy. The same holds true for people with disabilities. This Note’s proposed Social Security policy change would benefit disabled people who are economically disadvantaged and cannot risk losing their benefits, which follows from another point by Representative Raskin:

In a democracy in which every citizen had a decent income and there were no extremes of wealth—a society in which the electorate was not divided along lines of wealth and class— . . . the right to run for office would be a meaningful one for all citizens, since presumably everyone would have sufficient means of personal support while running for office given the relative affluence of our society. . . .  [D]onations would be more a function of the desire, rather than the capacity, to give, and campaign treasuries would roughly reflect a candidate’s actual popularity in the electorate.106

Representative Raskin, or any other member of Congress, could find bipartisan support on a benefits reform agenda. The political leaders mentioned in this Note—Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower—were from different parties, but were committed to enacting and expanding Social Security benefits. Later, the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) was heralded as “a model for bipartisanship” during George H.W. Bush’s administration.107 Current members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate who are disabled themselves may want to lead this issue, including Democratic Representative Bonnie Coleman Watson of New York and Representative Donald Payne, Jr. of New Jersey, and Republicans Representative Dan Crenshaw of Texas, Representative Brian Mast of Florida, and Representative Jim Baird of Indiana.108 Senator Robert Casey of Pennsylvania has already taken the lead on this effort by sponsoring Senate Bill 4597, with Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and nine other Democrats co-sponsoring the legislation.109

After—or perhaps in conjunction with—the preceding analysis, legislators should consider making similar changes to other benefit programs as well. After a low-income single mother relying on benefits won a school board seat in New Hampshire—a position paying $4,000 annually—she found out from her case manager that the $4,000 was enough to put her over the income limit to lose both her childcare scholarship and housing voucher the moment she accepted the position.110 Her childcare expenses would have increased from $20 to $275 per week, and the cost of her housing would have increased from $760 to $1,875 per month;111 she reflected: “I realized I wasn’t going to survive, I would’ve had an eviction notice.”112 She looked into waiving the salary but was advised against it, as she could have appeared to be engaging in welfare fraud.113 As a result, she quit her full-time job to maintain her housing and childcare support to serve in the position, living off of a lower-paying internship and reapplying for welfare benefits.114 As a new schoolboard member, she is considering running for her state legislature to reform the barriers that she feels keeps families in poverty; her financial struggles have motivated her even more to create change.115 Podcast host Katherine Goldstein, who interviewed the mother, concluded that “[o]ur system punishes you basically for taking on something new and earning more money.”116 “I keep thinking, ‘[w]hat could [this mother] accomplish and help the world with if she didn’t have to spend so much energy jumping through all these hoops?”117


Despite the Social Security benefits barrier, disabled people are increasingly running for office and inspiring others to do so. “More people with disabilities have been running for office ever since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990,” especially military veterans, Native Americans, and young people.118 “These are people who’ve grown up with [Americans with Disabilities Act] regulations and education laws in place. . . . While the stigma is still there, it’s less than what it used to be.”119 This has a snowballing effect, as disabled people who see others with disabilities running for office realize or imagine that they, too, may be able to run for office.120

As more disabled candidates run for office, more candidates can raise awareness of and champion how disability issues affect their own lives. For instance, Olivia Babis, a disabled Florida State Senate candidate in 2018, announced that she planned “to fight for better supports and services for people with disabilities” if elected.121 In another part of the country, former South Dakota Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton, who is paralyzed, is inspiring the next generation of disabled candidates; even though he narrowly lost his race for Governor in 2018, he reflected “I know I’m ready and able to take on the issues South Dakota faces, not in spite of my life-altering accident and disability, but, in part, because of it. The challenges I’ve overcome in my life have prepared me to lead with a unique determination and unmatched ability to listen and understand the struggles people face.”122 These challenges should not include our Social Security benefits program, which keeps low-income people with disabilities out of the halls of leadership.

Continue reading First, #CripTheVote, Now #CripCandidates?: Social Security Disability Benefits and Their Impact on Political Candidates with Disabilities

The Injustice of Life Without Parole Sentences for Child Defendants

By: Thaddeus Cwiklinski & Alireza Nourani-Dargiri††

[B]ecause “[t]he basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man,” the Amendment ‘must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.1

Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.2


Over the past seventeen years, the Supreme Court issued a series of rulings addressing child-sentencing3 under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The Court acknowledges that children do not have the same level of maturity or decision-making abilities as adults and should be punished differently.4 Notably, the Court established and upheld the fact that “children are constitutionally different from adults in their level of culpability” when it comes to sentencing.5 Moreover, these differences in maturity and accountability inform the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, which limits a court’s ability to sentence a child to die in prison.6

Furthermore, for decades the Court has recognized the “overwhelming weight of international opinion” against death-by-incarceration sentences for children.7 While this international opinion is not binding, its influence has directed the Court to issue progressive precedent regarding child sentencing.8 International human rights law flatly prohibits life without parole (LWOP) for children who commit crimes before the age of eighteen, a prohibition that is recognized and respected by almost every country in the world.9 Yet, the Court still refuses to abolish the practice altogether, even going as far as penning an incorrect opinion to uphold this unconstitutional practice.10

Generally, courts impose death-by-incarceration sentences, which include LWOP sentences and death sentences, when a defendant is deemed “permanently incorrigible,” meaning that the court finds the defendant lacks the ability to reform or rehabilitate.11 In addition to the phrase “permanently incorrigible,” courts use other phrases interchangeably, such as “irretrievable depravity,”12 “irreparable corruption,”13 “irredeemable,”14 “danger to society,”15 “no chance for reconciliation with society,”16 and “never will be fit to reenter society.”17 In imposing LWOP sentences, courts determine whether the sentence is appropriate considering (i) the child’s age and immaturity; (ii) the child’s family home environment; (iii) circumstances of the underlying offense, including influence of familial and peer pressure; (iv) incompetencies that disadvantage the child engaging with the criminal legal system, such as those when speaking with law enforcement and prosecutors; and (v) the child’s potential for rehabilitation.18 The purpose of these factors is to reserve LWOP sentences for only those who are, in fact, permanently incorrigible. Recently, however, the Court selectively disregarded this standard to keep children imprisoned for life, even if they are not deemed permanently incorrigible.19

This Article argues that sentencing children to LWOP should be abolished in all cases for two reasons. First, children have the potential to rehabilitate. Second, courts violate the evolving standards of decency doctrine underpinning the Eighth Amendment and permit cruel and unusual punishment when they sentence children to LWOP on the basis of permanent incorrigibility. Although courts have agreed that LWOP sentences should not be the norm,20 they consistently uphold the practice at both the state and federal levels.21 Evolving standards of decency doctrine requires courts to afford children the opportunity to reform. LWOP sentences provide no such opportunity.22

This Article consists of a two-part analysis of the death of children by incarceration. Part I discusses the evolution of child-death-by-incarceration (CDBI) sentences, including how a recent line of Supreme Court cases gravitates towards the conclusion that CDBI sentences are inconsistent with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Part III discusses final instances where CDBI is still permitted, the disproportionate racial disparities in CDBI sentences, how courts draw an arbitrary line when they permit death-by-incarceration sentences for children convicted of homicide crimes, and how the U.S.—in comparison to the rest of the world—is alone in perpetuating children’s death by incarceration. This Article demonstrates that CDBI sentences for children—even in cases involving homicide—are contrary to judicial precedent, violate civil and human rights standards, and infringe upon societal and cultural values.

I.    The Court’s Shift Away from Death by Incarceration for Children

As noted above, the Supreme Court has addressed child sentencing in the context of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The following is a summary of those cases.

In 2005, the Court in Roper v. Simmons held that children should not—and cannot—be sentenced to death.23 Simmons, who was only seventeen-years-old when he was convicted of murder, challenged his death sentence by arguing that children are not yet fully developed and, therefore, have a diminished capacity to judge and assess the risks and consequences of their actions.24 The Court agreed.25 The Court noted that “[w]hen a [child] commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.”26 The Court utilized adolescent development research, finding that because of minors’ developmental status, “it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”27 Thus, the Court concluded that the death penalty is a disproportionate punishment for youth; their immaturity diminishes culpability and they are much more susceptible to outside pressures and influences.28 Importantly, the Court also noted the country’s “evolving standards of decency,” writing that disproportionate sentences, such as death sentences for children fully capable of reform and rehabilitation, are a cruel and unusual punishment, violating their Eighth Amendment rights.29

The Roper precedent left open the question of how evolving standards of decency apply to other forms of death by incarceration. In Graham v. Florida, the Court began the process of banning LWOP sentences for children, starting with children who were not convicted of homicide crimes.30 Again, the Court noted that these sentences were disproportionate when sentencing youth.31 “For [children], who are most in need of and receptive to rehabilitation . . . , the absence of rehabilitative opportunities or treatment makes the disproportionality of the sentence all the more evident.”32 The Court declared that “the concept of proportionality is central to the Eighth Amendment,” and death-by-incarceration sentences—the harshest punishment available to children—must be limited to the most serious offenses.33

Unlike Roper and Graham, other cases left the Court to wrestle with statutory, mandatory sentences for children.34 Generally, the Court has deferred to the states to sentence criminal offenders, “even when such punishments are, by most accounts, excessive in light of the culpability of the offender and the harm caused.”35 Precisely because of this excessive and disproportionate scheme of state-sentencing, the Court in Miller v. Alabama36 knocked mandatory death by incarceration sentences out of contention, holding that these sentences violate the Eighth Amendment.37 The Court noted that judges must consider the characteristics of children in order to issue a fair and individualized sentence.38 Adolescence, the Court reasoned, is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences.”39 Thus, the Court concluded the Eighth Amendment would not allow courts to throw children away simply because the text of a state’s statute said so.40 However, the Court stopped short of interpreting the precedent set forth in Roper and Graham to abolish children’s death-by-incarceration in its entirety.41 In her majority opinion, Justice Kagan noted that requiring states to consider the inherent characteristics of children would render CDBI sentences “uncommon.”42  However “uncommon” condemning a child to die behind bars may be, allowing this sentence to be considered at all is, in itself, a cruel and unusual punishment.43 Justice Kagan makes formidable arguments that, standing alone, create an excellent case for eliminating CDBI altogether, and in the face of a practice that allows such a deprivation of children’s Eighth Amendment protections, the Court should not hesitate to end it.44 Justice Kagan should not have left the door open to give courts the “ability to make” a life-or-death judgment in homicide cases if she truly believed children have a “heightened capacity for change.”45

The Miller ruling required states to address their LWOP detainees who were previously sentenced as children under mandatory sentencing rules.46 In Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Court required states to apply the Miller ruling retroactively.47 Again, the Court noted that “children are constitutionally different from adults”48 and LWOP punishments must be reserved “for the rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”49 Despite categorizing certain children with the label of “permanently incorrigible,” the Montgomery Court failed to define “permanently incorrigible” or even provide an example of such an offender.

Although the Court spent the past few decades chipping away at any legitimacy LWOP sentences had for children, the Court recently released a poorly-reasoned decision with enormous repercussions for children.  In Jones v. Mississippi, the Court was asked to determine whether a child sentenced to a mandatory LWOP sentence for a homicide could apply for a new sentence based on the Miller and Montgomery holdings.50 It is worth noting that the fifteen-year-old plaintiff Jones demonstrated significant progress while imprisoned.51 After more than five years of incarceration, Jones received only two discipline infractions at the prison.52 Jones had also earned his GED, took college courses, and was described by the prison unit manager as “almost like [a] son.”53 Even his grandmother, whose husband Jones killed, forgave him and filed an amicus brief on his behalf, arguing that Jones was never permanently incorrigible.54 Yet, the Court upheld Jones’ LWOP sentence without finding him permanently incorrigible.55

The Court’s majority, written by Justice Kavanaugh, stated that “a sentencer [must] follow a certain process—considering an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics—before imposing” a LWOP sentence.56 But in the same breath, he also wrote that “a finding of fact regarding a child’s incorrigibility . . . is not required.”57 This ruling is inconsistent with decades of precedent where the Court reserved LWOP sentences for only those found permanently incorrigible as the Miller Court required.58 Even though Kavanaugh cites Montgomery in Jones,59 Kavanaugh’s decision directly contradicts Montgomery, in which Kennedy previously stated, “Miller’s conclusion that the sentence of life without parole is disproportionate for the vast majority of juvenile offenders raises a grave risk that many are being held in violation of the Constitution.”60 Kavanaugh ignored judicial precedent.

Justice Kavanaugh’s opinion effectively guts years of judicial precedent. Importantly, Justice Sotomayor noted in her dissent that the harms Kavanaugh created would not fall equally.61 “The racial disparities in juvenile LWOP sentencing are stark.”62 Sotomayor also emphasized how disproportionately CDBI sentences affect Black and Brown children.63 She wrote, “70 percent of all youths sentenced to LWOP are children of color.”64 Sotomayor cited an amici curiae brief explaining that “[i]n the years before Graham and Miller, courts sentenced Black [children] to life imprisonment without parole ten times more often than white offenders.”65 Since Miller, “72 percent of children sentenced to LWOP . . .  were Black, compared to 61 percent of children sentenced before Miller.”66 Despite reason to hope that the Miller ruling will reduce CDBI, as Sotomayor’s dissent demonstrates, the elimination of mandatory CDBI sentences has done practically nothing to eliminate the disparate impact regular CDBI sentences have on Black and Brown children.67 We are “throwing our babies away.”68

II.   Restorative Justice for Incarcerated Children

“If we are throwing our babies away, we have no future,” warned Rukiye Abdul-Mutakallim, an advocate of eliminating CDBI.69 Her son, Suliman, was murdered by three individuals while walking home in June of 2015.70 Two of the individuals responsible were children, one of whom was only fourteen years old.71 When she learned the fourteen-year-old received a twenty-year sentence, Rukiye neither rejoiced nor retaliated: she hugged him.72 She realized that these were not terrible children who took her son’s life; rather, they are “children who made terrible, terrible mistakes.”73

Though Rukiye’s attitude may seem remarkable, it is actually reflective of a growing, societal trend. In the face of the injustice of CDBI, “there is a growing consensus . . . in favor of rehabilitation for justice-involved youth, hopefully foreclosing the misguided attitude of ‘adult time for adult crime.’”74 Because courts are required to consider the societal consensus for evolving standards of decency,75 courts should see children as redeemable and not just as their crime. It is readily apparent to the average person that children differ greatly from adults in their capacity to make decisions, change, and mature.76 Yet, somehow sentencers lose sight of these different capacities. This calls for a new approach: restorative justice.

A. Restorative Justice

Restorative justice is a theory based on the principle that no person is irredeemable and that cooperative efforts are necessary to allow a community to completely heal.77 The restorative justice movement focuses on repairing the harm caused by crime, which includes the harms done to the victim, to the victim’s family, to the community, and also lingering physical and mental health harms for incarcerated people.78 Importantly, restorative justice does not discount what a convicted person has done, as some critics claim.79 While critics wrongfully assume this movement strays away from accountability, restorative justice explicitly requires people to “take responsibility for their wrong and want to make amends.”80

Restorative justice is built upon three foundational principles: (1) crime causes harm, and justice should focus on repairing that harm; (2) the people most affected by the crime should be able to participate in its resolution; and (3) the government is responsible for maintaining order and helping the community build peace.81 Through these principles, all parties are included in making amends in order to reintegrate offenders into their communities.82

While there are many positive implications of restorative justice, these implications are arguably even more impactful for children who face the possibility of incarceration.83 Numerous studies indicate that children who commit crimes and are placed in restorative justice programs consistently have lower recidivism rates.84 Upon completion of restorative justice programs, such as victim-offender dialogues,85 children pose less of a safety risk to society, and these programs can give victims who participate in facilitated dialogues a sense of both empowerment and closure.86 Frequently, restorative justice programs are also a more cost-effective alternative to traditional incarceration programs.87 Restorative justice is a unique opportunity to promote accountability while also making the victim whole. This rehabilitative approach reflects that children who commit crimes are still just that—children. Accordingly, restorative justice recognizes that these children have the capacity to grow and change.

B.   Injustices Against Children Sentenced to Death by Incarceration

Unfortunately, several U.S. jurisdictions’ notion of “justice” for sentencing children is anything but restorative.88 These states create a baseless distinction between LWOP sentences and death penalty sentences even though, in reality, there is no difference.89 In either case, people sentenced to DBI as children will never live to experience their freedom again, making the length of time they spend behind bars a delay of an inevitable death while incarcerated. In other words, whether the child dies by lethal injection or waits eighty years serving their incarceration sentence, the result is the same—death. These states not only violate children’s constitutional and international rights by disproportionately sentencing children of color,90 but CDBI sentences are also contrary to societal and cultural values such as the recognition of children as less culpable and more capable of reform than adults.91

It is important to understand who these children sentenced to unconstitutionally long, demeaning sentences are. At a fundamental level, incarceration and criminal prosecution of children is already skewed against Black youth.92 Professor Kristin Henning writes that although Black youth accounted for only 15 percent of children of juvenile court age in 2018, they “also accounted for 35 percent of all juvenile arrests for any crime in 2018 and 40 percent of all cases of in which the youth was sent to a detention facility to await trial or sentencing.”93 Further, 51 percent of children transferred from juvenile court to adult court so they can be tried as an adult are Black.94 At later stages of the criminal process, this statistical gap grows.95 Studies indicate that 62 percent of children sentenced to LWOP are Black,96 despite only 13.6 percent of the American population being Black.97

Children sentenced to LWOP often face an array of disadvantages before their incarceration.  Of the children sentenced to LWOP, 31.5 percent grew up in public housing.98 Only 46.6 percent—less than half—were attending school at the time of their offense.99 As much as 46.9 percent of the children were physically abused,100 and 79.5 percent of those reporting abusive histories identified as female.101 Another 77.3 percent of girls reported histories of sexual abuse.102 There is a glaring disparity regarding who these sentences impact the most.

The Eighth Amendment requires courts to account for evolving standards of decency by comparing challenged punishments with the longstanding principles and precedents of the common law.103 In other words, courts look at (1) societal consensus based on whether a majority of states’ legislatures have adopted a practice, and (2) whether the purposes of punishment justify the implementation of a practice.104 Admittedly, as seen in Miller, a large number of states still continue to have CBDI sentencing schemes which, as the majority wrote, qualify as “objective indicia of society’s standards.”105 However, societal consensus based on states’ legislation alone does not automatically justify a practice nor does it always indicate societal standards.106 For example, the United States is the only country to have CBDI sentences, which indicates the country runs counter to the objective societal standard.107

Using this inquiry, the U.S. Supreme Court failed to prohibit states from condemning children to death by incarceration by finding no categorical violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.108 The Supreme Court recognized that CDBI sentences are both cruel and unusual in most circumstances, yet allowed lower courts to continue to implement them in limited cases.109 Scholars argue that evolving standards of decency require courts to apply the Eighth Amendment in accordance with its moral aim or purpose to ban the infliction of unjust, oppressive, or disproportionate punishments by a state on its citizens.110 As it stands, however, the Supreme Court has ruled that “permanently incorrigible” children will never be able to contribute to society no matter how reformed they become.111

As seen in Jones, children often go through great change during incarceration.112 Again, Jones earned his GED, completed college courses, and reformed himself to the point that even those most directly affected by his crimes affirmed that he is rehabilitated.113 Yet, the Supreme Court disregarded Jones’s transformation, upholding his LWOP sentence and finding him “incorrigible” and beyond hope.114 This is not justice; this is cruel and unusual punishment. Incarceration is justified only to have offenders pay their debts to society, protect the community, and/or rehabilitate the offender. Individuals like Jones have clearly met their burden, yet they are punished anyway. That is cruel.

Opponents of the complete abolition of LWOP sentences for children argue that homicide is a serious crime and that children who commit homicide are therefore “more deserving” of harsher punishment.115 Homicide is unquestionably a serious crime, but the severity of a crime should not immediately negate the possibility, let alone the need, for rehabilitation and redemption.116 If anything, children who commit homicide have caused a harm that they can barely begin to atone for behind bars.117 Sentencing kids to death by incarceration in prison does not administer justice for either party involved; it only attempts to hide deep societal issues in the hopes that no one notices. For decades, the Court has noted that “children are different,”118 that courts must consider “a child’s lesser culpability,”119 and that courts must determine the defendant’s potential for rehabilitation.120 For decades, the courts demonstrated an agreement that children should be treated differently from adults and should have the opportunity to reform themselves—yet they still drew an arbitrary line.121

Furthermore, states’ practice of imposing LWOP sentences on children fails to conform with human rights standards.122 In reports examining the sentencing laws of all the countries around the world, researchers found that the United States is the only country in the world to use life without parole sentences for children.123 It is more than a little ironic that although the Supreme Court relies upon the doctrine of evolving standards of decency, the U.S. is the last to decently evolve. The international community values rehabilitation and restorative justice as a means to redefine the concept of justice as one of “healing” rather than one of “punishment.”124 The European Court for Human Rights, for instance, explicitly concluded that “all prisoners, including those serving life sentences, must be offered the possibility of rehabilitation and the prospect of release if that rehabilitation is achieved.”125 The U.S. CBDI sentences do not allow for that ideal. The U.S. fails to evolve and to progress each time its courts sentence children to death by incarceration.

Thus, this “permanently incorrigible” understanding for children involved in homicide cases is inherently flawed and contradictory. A mark of progress, reform, and growth shows an individual’s incapability to be permanently incorrigible. Especially considering children, who do not mentally fully develop until well into their twenties,126 they should be afforded the opportunity to reform themselves. If a child is able to develop, reform, and rehabilitate, how can a court find “permanence” in their actions when the court itself proves that the child is still developing?127

We each have the innate ability to reform ourselves, no matter how old or how young we are.128 The doctrine of evolving standards of decency requires the meaning of cruel and unusual punishment to align with current societal standards, because what was constitutionally permissible in the past is not necessarily constitutional now.129  Essentially, the Court eventually determines that certain punishments, such as death by incarceration sentences for children, will become unconstitutional because society now finds these sentences indecent and excessive.130 As in Roper, even when domestic jurisdictions uphold a particular practice like CDBI, “[i]t is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion” regarding a cruel and unusual punishment.131


Recent Supreme Court decisions demonstrate that LWOP sentences should be abolished for all children, even in cases involving homicides. This practice runs contrary to judicial precedent, various civil and human rights, and even our societal and cultural values in restorative justice.

In cases involving children over the past seventeen years, the Supreme Court has abolished the death penalty, banned LWOP sentences for non-homicide crimes, struck down mandatory minimum LWOP sentences, and retroactively applied these new rulings to individuals who were sentenced to LWOP as children. Indeed, the past is marred by precedent upholding the constitutionality of death by incarceration sentences for children. Evolving standards of decency, however, do not rest on precedent; they rest on societal standards that mark the progress of a maturing society. If the Court affords itself the ability to mature and grow, courts should also allow children the ability to demonstrate they can reform and rehabilitate. Especially considering that children do not fully develop until almost a decade into adulthood, how can a sentencer find “permanent incorrigibility” in a child capable of maturing, growing, reforming, and rehabilitating? The logical progression of future cases should be the total abolition of LWOP sentences for children—not dangerous missteps that uphold this unconstitutional practice and allow the labels of “irreparable,” “permanently incorrigible,” and “dangerous” to follow a reformed child into adulthood. We should be trending towards restorative justice, not towards throwing more children away.

J.D. Candidate, Case Western Reserve University School of Law, Class of 2023. I am extremely grateful for the people who generously devoted their time and expertise to assist us as we researched, drafted, and refined this article. It was a joy to be part of Professors Ayesha Bell Hardaway and Ashley Everett’s Social Justice Law Center Reporter course. Ashley’s insight and feedback were invaluable, and her support unwavering. Thanks also to my co-author Alireza for his constant enthusiasm for writing and his persistence in seeking publication. Finally, I would be remiss not to specially acknowledge the impact of Professor Kristen Henning’s scholarship on this article. Professor Henning’s book The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth and her compelling lecture at Case Western Reserve University School of Law provided inspiration and context as we wrote.

†† Postdoctoral Scholar, Case Western Reserve University School of Law. My sincerest gratitude to Ashley Everett and Ayesha Bell Hardaway’s Social Justice Law Center Reporter course for giving us a forum to delve into these topics. Special thanks are in order to Ashley who read several drafts of this piece, met with us on several occasions, and provided many—and thorough—edits throughout the process. I am also incredible lucky to have been able to write this piece with Thaddeus Cwiklinski who was the epitome of a great co-author. Lastly, I extend my utmost gratitude to the members of the Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights for their superb editorial assistance, particularly in their efforts to push our equitable writing.

1 Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 589 (2005) (O’Connor, J., dissenting) (citing Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 100–01 (1958).

2 Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption 17–18 (2014).

3 The authors decline to use the term “juveniles” to describe children who are defendants. “Juvenile” connotes a negative idea of immaturity, but does not take into account the actual nature of who these defendants are. The term “children,” on the other hand, properly describes these defendants as underdeveloped and capable of growth. The term “juvenile” is nearly universally used in a negative context. See generally Kristin Henning, The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth (2021) (arguing that the American policing crisis begins with the criminal justice system’s treatment of Black children).

4 Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190, 208 (2016) (holding that children whose crimes reflect “the transient immaturity of youth” cannot constitutionally be sentenced to death by incarceration).

5 Id. at 213.

6 Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 74–75 (2010) (discussing rehabilitation theories of punishment as they apply to children and adults, holding that children cannot be sentenced to life without parole).

7 Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 578 (2005).

8 Id. at 575. (“[T]he Court has referred to the laws of other countries and to international authorities as instructive for its interpretation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’”).

9 See Brief of Amici Curiae Amnesty Int’l, et. al. Supporting Petitioners at 2, Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012) (No. 10-9646, 10-9647) (“Treaties the United States is party to are relevant to this analysis. The United States is the only country in the world that does not comply with the norm against imposing life without possibility of parole sentences on offenders who are under the age of 18 at the time of the offense.”); see alsoInternational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 14, Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S. 171 (“In the case of juvenile persons, the procedure shall be used as will take account of their age and the desirability of promoting their rehabilitation.”).

10 See generally Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S.Ct. 1307 (2021).

11 “Permanently incorrigible” is an inherently indefinite standard. This is partially because the determination of when someone is “permanently incorrigible” is left up to the jury at trial, and trial courts do not have to adhere to any formal fact-finding requirements in making the determination. Casey Matsumoto, “Permanently Incorrigible” Is a Patently Ineffective Standard: Reforming the Administration of Juvenile Life Without Parole, 88 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 239, 239–40 (2020). The proclamation that someone is “permanently incorrigible,” leads to the lifelong branding of an individual as being beyond all hope of redemption. Kempis Songster, Rachel López, and Terrell Carter refute labeling people as “permanently incorrigible” and offer their own redemption experiences while serving life sentences as proof of the falsehood of the standard. See generally Terrell Carter, Rachel López & Kempis Songster, Redeeming Justice, 116 Nw. U. L. Rev. 315 (2021) (arguing for a legal right of redemption based on personal experiences).

12 See, e.g., Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190, 208 (2016); see also Jones, 141 S.Ct. at 1329, 1340 (Thomas J., concurring).

13 Montgomery, 577 U.S. at 209.

14 Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 75 (2010).

15 Id. at 72.

16 Id. at 79.

17 Jones, 141 S.Ct. at 1340 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

18 Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 477–78 (2012).

19 See generally Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190, 733 (2016).

20 Derek Gilna, Supreme Court: Retroactivity Ends Mandatory Juvenile LWOP Sentences, Prison Legal News (Mar. 1, 2016), [] (discussing how Miller prevents state courts from imposing mandatory LWOP sentences on children).

21 State courts have already recognized LWOP sentences and excessive sentences on children as interchangeable. See e.g., People v. Caballero, 282 P.3d 291, 295 (Cal. 2012) (holding that requiring children who are defendants to serve 110 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole is “the functional equivalent of a life without parole sentence”); People v. Contreras, 411 P.3d 445, 462 (Cal. 2018) (holding that sentences of fifty and fifty-eight years for children each violated the Eighth Amendment); State v. Null, 836 N.W.2d 41, 72 (Iowa 2013) (holding that Graham and Roper’s “meaningful opportunity to obtain release” requirement in sentencing for children applies to lengthy term-of-years sentences, in this case a 52.5-year term before parole eligibility).

22 Within this Article, LWOP refers not only to sentences that are explicitly life sentences, but also to sentences that by application would lend to be a life sentence. The authors interpret “LWOP sentences” to include nominal life sentences and excessive sentences that effectively condemn individuals to death by incarceration. For example, a sentence to two hundred years in prison may not explicitly be called a “life sentence,” but it obviously extends beyond any possible human lifespan. See U.S. Sent’g Comm’n, Life Sentences in the Federal System 10 (2015), [] (explaining that sentences greater than 470 months effectively function as de facto life sentences).

23 Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 575 (2005).

24 Id. at 556–58.

25 Id. at 578.

26 Id. at 573–74.

27 Id. at 570.

28 Id. at 569.

29 Roper, 543 U.S. at 570–71.

30 Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 52 (2011).

31 Id. at 73 (“‘It is difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the [child] whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare [child] whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.’ . . . A life without parole sentence improperly denies the [child] a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity.”).

32 Id. at 74.

33 Id. at 59.

34 Am. Bar Ass’n Gov’t Aff.’s Off., Mandatory Life for Juvenile Offenders: Does Youth Matter?, Wash. Letter, Oct. 17, 2019, at 3 (discussing recent LWOP cases).

35 William W. Berry III, Evolved Justices? The Case for a Broader Application of the Eighth Amendment, 96 Wash. U. L. Rev. 105, 116 (2018).

36 567 U.S. 460 (2012).

37 Id. at 470.

38 Id. at 476 (“Of special pertinence here, we insisted . . . that a sentencer have the ability to consider the ‘mitigating qualities of youth. . . . ‘[J]ust as the chronological age of a minor is itself a relevant mitigating factor of great weigh, so must the background and mental and emotional development of a youthful defendant be duly considered’ in assessing his culpability.”).

39 Id. at 472.

40 See Berry, supra note 35, at 116 (“The Eighth Amendment story is one of judicial deference to states and hesitancy to protect the individual rights of defendants.”).

41 See Miller, 567 U.S. at 479–80.

42 Id. at 479–80 (“But given all we have said in Roper, Graham, and [the Miller] decision about children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing [children] to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon. That is especially so because of the great difficulty we noted in Roper and Graham of distinguishing at this early age between ‘the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”).

43 Contra id. at 480. (“Although we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment in homicide cases.”).

44 See id. at 483 (“[O]ur decision flows straightforwardly from our precedents: specifically, the principle of Roper, Graham, and our individualized sentencing cases that youth matters for purposes of meting out the law’s most serious punishments.”).

45 Id. at 479–80.

46 Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190, 208–09 (2016).

47 Id.

48 Id. at 213.

49 Id. at 209.

50Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S.Ct. 1307, 1313 (2021).

51 Id. at 1339 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting); Mark Joseph Stern, Brett Kavanaugh’s Opinion Restoring Juvenile Life Without Parole is Dishonest and Barbaric, Slate (Apr. 22, 2021, 12:35 PM), [].

52Jones, 141 S.Ct. at 1339 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

53 Id.

54 Id.

55 Id. at 1322 (majority opinion).

56 Id. at 1311 (quoting Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 483 (2012)).

57 Id. (quoting Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190, 211 (2016)).

58 If you are confused by the holding, how it lends to the trend of judicial precedent, and how it upholds the ideal of stare decisis, so are the authors of this paper. As Justice Sotomayor wrote in her dissenting opinion, “the Court attempts to circumvent stare decisis principles by claiming that ‘[t]he Court’s decision today carefully follows both Miller and Montgomery.’ . . . The Court is fooling no one.” Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S.Ct. 1307, 1328 (2021) (Sotomayor, J. dissenting).

59 Id. at 1317-1318 (majority opinion).

60 Montgomery, 577 U.S. at 212.

61 See Jones, 141 S.Ct. at 1334 n.2 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting) (discussing the disparate impact of Miller’s holding).

62 Id.

63 Id.

64 Id. (quoting Brief for Juvenile Law Center et al. as Amici Curiae in Support of Petitioner at 21, Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S.Ct. 1307 (2021) (No. 18-1259)).

65 Id.; see also Brief for Juvenile Law Center et al. as Amici Curiae in Support of Petitioner at 22, Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S.Ct. 1307 (2021) (No. 18-1259) (“The disparity was even more evident for Back [children] offenders convicted of killing white victims; courts sentenced those offenders to life imprisonment without parole more than 12 times more often than white offenders convicted of killing Black victims.”).

66 Jones, 141 S.Ct. at 1334 n.2.

67 See generally Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S.Ct. 1307, 1334 n.2 (2021) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting) (comparing impacts of the Miller on racial minorities).

68 Evan Millward, Mother of Murder Victim Advocated for New Parole Changes, WCPO (Jan. 11, 2021, 5:01 PM), [].

69 Id.

70 Id.

71 Id.

72 Id.

73 See id. (quoting Kevin Werner of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center). In her own words, Abdul-Mutakallim remarked, “I found it unfathomable. These are human beings, aren’t they? . . . And then when I saw them in court and they were children? Ahh.” Id.

74 Cara H. Drinan, The Miller Trilogy and the Persistence of Extreme Juvenile Sentences, 58 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 1659, 1662–63 (2021).

75 See Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 561 (2005) (discussing the standards of decency as applied to children).

76 Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190, 208 (2016) (holding that because children do not have the same decision-making capacity as adults, children whose crimes reflect “the transient immaturity of youth” cannot constitutionally be sentenced to death by incarceration).

77 See generally Paul McCold & Ted Watchel, In Pursuit of Paradigm: A Theory of Restorative Justice 1 (2003), [] (providing a theoretical overview of restorative justice).

78 See id. (explaining outlook of restorative justice); see also Justice Reinvestment, Restorative Just. Exch. (Dec. 7, 2015), [] (explaining that because “almost two-thirds of inmates have some kind of mental health problems,” restorative justice can help address mental health and reduce the cost of services inside correctional facilities).

79 See Candace McCoy, Wolf Heydebrand & Rekha Mirchandani, The Problem with Problem-Solving Justice: Coercion vs. Democratic Deliberation, 3 Restorative Just. 159, 170 (2015) (arguing that instead of individually deterring crime, restorative justice can be coercive because the community and the victim’s family often attempt to reinforce social norms by making the convicted person take accountability).

80 Three Core Elements of Restorative Justice, Restorative Just. Exch., [].

81 See McCold & Watchel, supra note 77, at 2 (discussing the roles victims, offenders, and the government play in restorative justice).

82 Id.

83 See e.g., Restorative Just. Consortium, The Positive Effect of Restorative Justice on Re-Offending 10 (2006), [] (explaining that in one study with children in the United Kingdom, restorative justice techniques reduced penalties by 59 percent, police calls by 40 percent, and offending levels by one-third).

84 See generally id. (summarizing studies that examine the recidivism rate after restorative justice techniques are implemented).

85 Although these programs often take place within prisons, there are a multitude of services associated with restorative justice ideals. These programs include, but are not limited to: victim-offender mediations, victim panels, conferencing, ex-offender assistance, restitution programs, community service programs, as well as various educational programs. See, e.g., Jonathan Derby, Restorative Justice: Principles and Practice 16 (2022), [] (explaining victim-offender mediations and other forms of meetings). A multitude of nonprofits work with prisons to provide these services. See, e.g., What We Do, Insight Prison Project, [] (explaining a nonprofit’s mission to incorporate restorative justice principles).

86 See Benefits of Restorative Justice, Comty. Just. Network of Vt.,,centers%20help%20to%20establish%20a%20more%20active%20citizenship [] (explaining the benefits of restorative justice to the community and victims).

87 Id.

88 See Josh Rovner, Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview, Sent’g  Project (Apr. 7, 2023), [] (reporting that nineteen states currently have people serving LWOP sentences for crimes committed when they were children).

89 See Julian H. Wright, Jr., Life-Without-Parole: An Alternative to Death or Not Much of Life at All?, 43 Vanderbilt L. Rev. 529, 559 (1990) (“Perhaps the most telling criticism of life-without-parole, especially in states that use LWOP as an alternative to the death penalty, is that LWOP simply is not used often enough to make any real difference. . . . [There is] a reluctance on the part of juries and judges to impose the sanction in place of capital punishment in heinous cases.”).

90 See Carol Chodroff, Human Rights Watch Supports the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2008,Hum. Rts. Watch (July 3, 2008, 8:00 PM), [] (discussing how youth of color are disproportionately subjected to more punitive sanctions).

91 See Rovner, supra note 88 (explaining that well-accepted and research-backed notion that children do not have the same capacities as adults, so they should not be sentenced like adults).

92 See Henning, supra note 3, at 15–16 (highlighting the ways that white and Black teenagers are treated differently in the criminal justice system and by police officers).

93 Id. at 15.

94 Id.

95 See Rovner, supra note 88 (explaining that over a majority of people sentenced to LWOP are not participating in prison programs).

96 Id.; see also Ashley Nellis, The Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings from a National Survey 14–15 (2012), [] (discussing racial disparities for black children with LWOP sentences).

97 Quick Facts: United States, U.S. Census Bureau, [].

98 Nellis,  supra note 96, at 2.

99 Id. at 3.

100 Id. at 2.

101 Id.

102 Id.

103 Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 561 (2005).

104 See Berry, supra note 35, at 117 (explaining that the two-step process of evaluating the evolving standards doctrine assessing a punishment).

105 Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 482 (2012).

106 Id. at 483 (“[Y]outh matters for the purposes of meting out the law’s most serious punishments.”).

107 See Chodroff, supra note 90 (indicating international standards through treaties which protect the human rights of incarcerated people); see alsoSaki Knafo, Here Are All the Countries Where Children Are Sentenced to Die in Prison, Huff Post (Sept. 20, 2013, 3:41 PM), [] (identifying the United States as the only country to sentence children to life sentence without parole).

108 Morgan S. McGinnis, Sentenced to Die in Prison: Life without Parole as an Eighth Amendment Violation for All Juveniles and Especially Those Who Have Not Killed, 11 Hastings Race & Poverty L.J.  201, 221 (2014) (“[B]ecause society’s social mores have changed, sentencing juveniles to LWOP violates the Eighth Amendment and is thus unconstitutional.”).

109 Id.

110 See, e.g., Dennis J. Baker, Constitutionalizing the Harm Principle, 27 Crim. Just. Ethics 3, 15 (2008) (“The Eighth Amendment should be interpreted in a way that accords with its overall moral aim or purpose. The Amendment’s overall moral aim is to ensure that the state does not inflict unjust, oppressive, or disproportional punishments on its citizens.”).

111 See generally Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S.Ct. 1307 (2020) (upholding a LWOP conviction for a child convicted of murder).

112 Id. at 1339 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

113 Id.

114 Id. at 1323.

115 See generally id. (upholding a LWOP conviction for a child convicted of murder).

116 See generally Carter, López & Songster, supra note 11 (providing a more thorough analysis of the concept of redemption as a fundamental reason why life without parole can never be justified). Through personal anecdotes, as well as the legal ideals of restorative justice, the authors demonstrate there is always a possibility for rehabilitation and redemption. Id.

117 Even while incarcerated without any real means to make amends, Jones made an effort to educate himself and actively searched for work to do in the prison. Jones, 141 S.Ct. at 1339 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting). Jones’s unit manager revealed that Jones had spoken to him about regretting his actions. Id.

118 Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 480 (2012).

119 Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190, 207 (2016).

120 Miller, 567 U.S. at 465.

121 Jones, 141 S.Ct. at 1340 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

122 Condemning LWOP sentences for children, “[i]nternational human rights experts have found that such sentences violate the three core human rights treaties ratified by the U.S.: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (the ‘ICCPR’); the Convention Against Torture (the ‘CAT’); and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (the ‘CERD’).” Colum. L. Sch. Hum. Rts Inst., Challenging Juvenile Life Without Parole: How Has Human Rights Made a Difference? 2 (2014), [] (“The Convention on the Rights of the Child (the ‘CRC’)—ratified by every country in the world, other than South Sudan, Somalia, and the United States—expressly prohibits []LWOP [for children.] Demonstrating international opposition to []LWOP [for children], the United Nations General Assembly has called for immediate abrogation of []LWOP sentences [for children] every year since 2006. []LWOP sentences [for children] have also been rejected by regional human rights bodies, which monitor human rights compliance in the Americas.”).

123Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP), Juv. L. Ctr., []; Brandon L. Garrett, Life Without Parole for Kids Is Cruelty with No Benefit, Atlantic (Oct. 19, 2020), [].

124 Daniel W. Van Ness, Restorative Justice: International Trends 1 (Oct. 7,1998) (unpublished manuscript), []; see also Carter, López & Songster, supra note 11 at 332 (discussing a personal theory of redemption).

125 Cheri Brooks, Lifers Speak Out on Right to Redemption, Drexel Mag. (2022), [].

126 Sarah B. Johnson et al., Adolescent Maturity and the Brain: The Promise and Pitfalls of Neuroscience Research in Adolescent Health Policy, 45J. Adolescent Health 216, 216 (2009); K. Kersting, Brain Research Advances Help Elucidate Teen Behavior, 35 Monitor on Psych. 80, 80 (2004).

127 Jones, for example, had shown great strides towards reform and clearly is not permanently incorrigible. Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S.Ct. 1307, 1339 (2021) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting). Again, LWOP sentences simply do not allow for a meaningful opportunity to reform. See generally Kerstin Conrad et al., Brain Development During Adolescence: Neuroscience Insights into This Developmental Period, 110 Deutsches Artzeblatt Int. 425 (2013) (finding that fundamental reorganization in the brain takes place during adolescence, which accounts for many young people having risk-taking behavioral patterns).

128 Carter, López & Songster, supra note 11 at 332 (remarking that redemption is possible).

129 Courtney Amelung, Responding to the Ambiguity of Miller v. Alabama: The Time Has Come for States to Legislate for a Juvenile Restorative Justice Sentencing Regime, 72 Md. L. Rev. Endnotes 21, 29 (2013) (discussing the Court’s decision in Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010)).

130 See Berry, supra note 35, at 149 (discussing the evolving standards of decency doctrine).

131 Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 578 (2005) (“[T]he opinion of the world community, while not controlling our outcome, does provide respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions.”).

Continue reading The Injustice of Life Without Parole Sentences for Child Defendants

The Problems with Using the Criminal Legal System to Fight the Criminal Legal System

By: Kevin Trahan

Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was convicted of murder on Tuesday and sentenced to 10 years in prison, just over a year after shooting and killing a 26-year-old black man named Botham Jean sitting in his apartment. Guyger lived in the same apartment complex as Jean, and after she walked into Jean’s apartment and shot him, unprovoked, she claimed she thought she was entering her own apartment and he had broken in.

The shooting rightfully provoked outrage, as it is among the most heinous instances of police killing unarmed black men across the country. At trial, Guyger testified that she was returning from a long shift, accidentally went to the wrong floor of the apartment complex, walked in, and fired within seconds upon seeing a “silhouetted person” approach her at a “fast-paced” walk.[1] It is plausible that Guyger walked into the wrong apartment by accident, but her subsequent actions were inexcusable. Jean was unarmed, and rather than leave or attempt to diffuse the situation, her first reaction was to shoot. The story fit a familiar pattern: a police officer claiming they were “scared”  and using that as an excuse to shoot an unarmed black man who posed no immediate threat—and, in most instances, no threat at all. Such was the case in the killings of Jean, Michael Brown, Terence Crutcher, Laquan McDonald, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Stephon Clark, and countless others.

This fear of black male bodies has been used as justification for their killings again and again. In a rare instance, a Dallas jury made clear it wouldn’t accept this excuse.

The epidemic of police violence is undeniable. This year alone, 660 people have been shot and killed by police.[2] 992 people were killed by police in 2018. As the shootings have gained more attention, particularly since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, activists have called for accountability. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has drawn wide public attention to the problem, and to the institutionalized racism present in law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices.[3] The movement’s influence has provided hope that finally, there will be accountability for a system that consistently violates the rights of people of color and the poor. The question we are left with is what does accountability looks like.

In the death of Botham Jean, accountability has meant the prosecution of Guyger. The focus on prosecuting Guyger as an expression of accountability is understandable. The criminal legal system has engrained in Americans that criminal punishment is the only legitimate way to express disapproval of violence.

However, this approach to accountability does nothing to address the substantive root causes behind why the violence occurred. It is, in many ways, a cop-out: it allows the unjust criminal legal system to capitalize off of legitimate anger by the public and place blame on the perpetrator of violence, rather than the system itself. The system deserves the majority of the blame, but in the prosecution of Guyger, the system and its supporters have effectively shifted the blame to a single actor—avoiding accountability and ensuring more injustices are sure to come. Ta-Nehisi Coates aptly explained the trouble with a prosecutorial approach to violence in his criticism of the Obama Justice Department’s decision to seek the death penalty against Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who murdered nine members of a black church in Charleston, South Carolina:

The hammer of criminal justice is the preferred tool of a society that has run out of ideas. In this sense, Roof is little more than a human sacrifice to The Gods of Doing Nothing. Leave aside actual substantive policy. In a country where unapologetic slaveholders and regressive white supremacists still, at this late date, adorn our state capitals and our highest institutions of learning, it is bizarre to kill a man who acted in their spirit. And killing Roof, like the business of the capital punishment itself, ensures that innocent people will be executed. The need to extract vengeance cannot always be exact. It is all but certain that a disproportionate number of those who pay for this lack of precision will not look like Dylann Roof.[4]

One need not feel sympathy for Guyger to recognize that she is a useful scapegoat for a system of law enforcement and prosecution that will happily throw one it its own to “The Gods of Doing Nothing” in order to avoid systemic change. In the time since Guyger killed Jean just one year ago, Texas police officers have killed 84 people. Justice for Jean, and justice for all, should be focused on accountability for that system.

There are far better responses to Jean’s killing than those that resort to the criminal legal system. The most obvious solution is to scale back and eventually abolish what has essentially become an occupying force in minority communities.

The activism of Critical Resistance in Oakland, California, provides a good example of how to respond to police killings with systemic solutions. When San Francisco police killed a 19-year-old undocumented resident named Adolfo Delgado, firing 99 shots at him while he hid to avoid deportation, the organization responded with a simple message: “to stop police murders, abolish the police.”[5]

The title is provocative, but the group listed concrete demands:

The violence of policing must be addressed by eliminating gang injunctions, defunding police departments, reducing the number of cops patrolling our streets, stripping the power of police officers’ associations, ending police militarization programs such as Urban Shield, and rejecting the purchase of new weapons or surveillance technology. It is efforts such as these that will reduce the police’s ability to harass, harm, and kill our community members, and ultimately, bring us closer to a vision where our communities live free from state violence.

Shootings in other communities have prompted similar responses, with actual results. For example, a recent study found that Austin, Texas, has the highest number of police killings per capital following mental health calls.[6] In a particularly jarring incident before the study was released, an Austin police officer shot and killed a naked, unarmed black teenager who was exhibiting symptoms of a mental health crisis.[7] The officer was fired, though not criminally indicted. Rather, under pressure from local activists Austin’s city council has invested in a program that sends mental health professionals, rather than police, to attend to mental health calls.[8] Of course, there is still a long way to go in Austin, where the city council just approved the police force’s request to increase in size.[9] However, activists in the city have shown that they can be successful in calling for a type of accountability that reshapes at least part of the system.

Prosecuting Amber Guyger will not change the negative impact the Dallas police have on the poor and communities of color. However, fighting for systemic change that fundamentally alters the system, such as has been done in Austin and Oakland, would provide true justice for Jean and residents of Dallas.

Guyger rightfully outraged activists during her testimony, because despite showing little (or really any) remorse after killing Jean, she showed emotion on stage when faced with a murder charge. The reaction—anger displayed not at the killing, but at a loss of privilege she never expected to lose—was repulsive to many.

As activist Elisabeth Epps noted following Guyger’s testimony: “Not 1 real teardrop in 2 mins of fake hiccups. She can’t even summon the weaponized white tears that usually accompany white fragility. Repulsive. Justice is not sending #BothamJean’s racist killer #AmberGuyger to a cage. Justice would be abolishing the police.”[10]

A common response to those in favor of criminal prosecution of Guyger and other officers is why not both?

On an emotional level, this is a fair response. Police officers are so rarely prosecuted, or even indicted, for their violence—despite that, in most cases, grand juries will “indict a ham sandwich”—it can feel like the system is finally working against the very people it is designed to work for. And because healing is important in response to violence, any future must employ restorative justice mechanisms that bring together victims and offenders to determine how the offender can provide some sort of healing.

It was clear that Jean’s family was open to some sort of restorative mechanism beyond, or in some cases in place of, the criminal legal system. Jean’s brother, Brandt Jean, said that he didn’t want Guyger to go to jail,[11] while his mother stated in a press conference that, “[t]here’s much more that needs to be done by the city of Dallas. The corruption that we saw during this process must stop.”[12] (It is important to note that Brandt Jean’s expression of forgiveness should not be used as an excuse to do nothing about systemic abuses.[13])

Unfortunately, the system we have is not designed to be restorative—rather, it is vengeance-driven. And the problem with embracing a vengeance-driven system is that, as Coates noted, “the need to extract vengeance cannot always be exact.”

Prosecuting Guyger legitimizes a racist system. It allows law enforcement to claim to care about racism in the system while not actually fixing anything. It provides plausible deniability when the system inevitably retreats to its racist, classist ways—victimizing mostly communities of color and the poor with over-policing and over-prosecution. The same prosecutors who jailed Guyger will use their power and newfound legitimacy to jail far more poor people and people of color than perpetrators of racist violence.

Even portions of the trial itself have legitimized improper prosecutorial tactics. Self-proclaimed racial justice advocates were cheerleaders for the slut-shaming of Guyger, who it was revealed was having a relationship with her patrol partner.[14] Other activists called out Gugyer for having sex days after the shooting, following a pattern of prosecutors using charged language to ignore the fact that people have tremendously different reactions to trauma in different situations.

Many activists regard Guyger’s prison sentence as a win. She is now subject to a punishment that police officers hardly ever see—a punishment typically endured by communities like Botham Jean’s.

But even now that Guyger is locked up, there will be no more justice than there was the day before. The police will still occupy communities of color and the poor, bombarding them with expressions of state violence. The criminal legal system will have an example of the time it worked to “fight racism,” only to lock up more black and brown people in the future.

As prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba wrote in response to Guyger’s verdict, “Abolition demands no cages for anyone. It’s really that simple and that complex. Prison in the meantime is not abolitionist.”[15]

It is human nature to want accountability for a senseless killing. And communities of color and the poor have dealt with a far harsher and more unjust version of accountability than any police officer. But true accountability starts with finally creating structural change that scales back and eventually abolishes the racist, classist occupying force that is the police and the prison system. It will never come if we are willing to legitimize the carceral system just to extract vengeance in the meantime.

[1] Tanya Ballard Brown, ‘I Hate Myself,’ Former Dallas Police Officer Who Killed Neighbor Tells Jurors, NPR (Sept. 27, 2019),

[2] Fatal Force, Wash. Post (last visited Sept. 29, 2019),

[3] Frank Leon Roberts, How Black Lives Matter Changed the Way Americans Fight for Freedom, ACLU (Jul. 13, 2018),

[4] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Killing Dylann Roof, Atlantic (May 26, 2016),

[5] To Stop Police Murders, Abolish the Police, Critical Resistance (Mar. 19, 2018),

[6] Heather Osbourne, Austin Leads in Police Shootings During Mental Health Calls, Study Finds, Austin Am.-Statesman (Sept. 24, 2019),

[7] Philip Jankowski, Austin Police Fire Officer Who Fatally Shot Naked Teen David Joseph, Austin Am.-Statesman (Sept. 27, 2018),

[8] Yoojin Cho, Austin Approves Spending Millions on Improving Mental Health Call Response, KXAN (Sept. 11, 2019),

[9] Philip Jankowski, Austin City Council Approves Record $4.2 Billion Budget, Austin Am.-Statesman (Sept. 10, 2019),

[10] Elizabeth epps is tired. (@elisabeth), Twitter (Sept. 27, 2019, 11:46 AM CT),

[11] ABC News (@ABC), Twitter (Oct. 2, 2019, 4:42 PM CT),

[12] Marjorie Owens, ‘There’s Gotta be a Better Day,’ Says Botham Jean’s Mother after Amber Guyger Sentencing, WFAA (Oct. 2, 2019),

[13] Jemar Tisby, White Christians, Do Not Cheapen the Hug and Message of Forgiveness from Botham Jean’s Brother, Wash. Post (Oct. 3, 2019, 11:36 AM CT),

[14] Cory Provost (@coryprovost), Twitter (Sept. 27, 2019, 11:26 AM CT),

[15] #FreeTondalao (@prisonculture), Twitter (Oct. 1, 2019, 4:38 PM CT),