What the United States and Somalia Have in Common

photo courtesy of: http://ioneglobalgrind.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/12.jpg?w=390
photo courtesy of: http://ioneglobalgrind.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/12.jpg?w=390

photo courtesy of: http://ioneglobalgrind.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/12.jpg?w=390

The United States is one of the only countries in the world that sentences people to die in prison for crimes they committed prior to their eighteenth birthday.  In other words, the United States is unique in that it allows, and in fact sometimes requires, our justice system to sentence individuals to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed before turning eighteen years old.  The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child bans sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole.  Besides the United States, Somalia is the only other country that has failed to ratify the treaty.  In many ways an innovative instrument, the convention is the first international treaty enacted to implement minimum standards for the protection of children’s rights, guaranteeing civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights to children.  Focused on the four general principles, non-discrimination, best interests of the child, right to life, survival, and development, and views of the child, the treaty recognizes the special vulnerabilities of children and acknowledges their ever-evolving capabilities.  While the U.S. has failed to ratify the Convention, it has adopted two of its optional provisions, Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, preventing governments from forcing children under the age of eighteen into compulsorily duty in the armed forces and Sale of Children, Child Prostitution, and Child Pornography, prohibiting the sale of children as well as child prostitution and pornography.  Additionally, in 1992, the U.S. ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which required rehabilitation to be the focus of juvenile punishment, however the U.S. has reserved the right to sentence juveniles to life without parole in extreme cases involving severe criminals and hardened crimes.

Utilizing the punishment much more often than anywhere else in the world, the practice gained the most support in the 1980s and 1990s when the country saw a spike in violent crimes committed by youth, garnering a wealth of media coverage, and causing politicians to adopt “tough on crime” policies in an attempt to quell public apprehensions.  According to a report by The Sentencing Project, there has been an increase in life sentences given across the board for all offenders, adults and youth alike, with individuals serving life sentences without the possibility of parole increasing by nearly 10,000 in just four years from 2008 to 2012.  By allowing individuals to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed prior to their eighteenth birthday, the United States is neglecting to account for the vast differences that exist between adult and youth offenders, including but not limited to poverty, childhood abuse, and youthfulness in general, all factors that can contribute to the crime committed.  Placing rehabilitation at the center of juvenile punishments acknowledges the notion that youth are still developing physically, mentally, and emotionally and because they are continually learning, expanding, and growing, they are capable of benefitting exceptionally from rehabilitation, rather than incarceration.

With about 2,500 youth offenders currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, a change in attitude toward juvenile crimes is definitely needed, but has America recognized this need?  Two recent Supreme Court cases, Graham v. Florida (2010) and Miller v. Alabama (2012), may lend support for an answer in the affirmative.  In Graham, the Court stated that because of the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional differences between juveniles and adults, individuals under the age of eighteen at the time of committing a crime cannot be given sentences of life without the possibility of parole unless charged with homicide.  The Court in Miller determined that states cannot imprison juveniles under laws that mandatorily impose life sentences without the possibility of parole as a penalty for homicide.  Viewing the imposition of mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles without considering age and other relevant factors as a violation of the eighth amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, Graham and Miller are steps in the right direction towards recognizing the extensive differences between juvenile and adult offenders. However, yet another question now surfaces.  Should the holding in Miller, with the potential of having life changing effects for thousands of already incarcerated offenders, be applied retroactively to the approximately 2,000 prisoners who are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole under statutes such as the one discussed in Miller?  Youth cannot be given life sentences unless their proceedings are transferred out of the juvenile justice system and into adult court, as no such sentence is available through the juvenile system.  To pose an even broader question, should juveniles ever be transferred to adult court in the first place?  With approximately 2,000 youth offenders convicted under statutes like those outlawed by Miller serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, many of them could potentially be given a second chance by applying the Miller holding retroactively or alternatively, could have benefitted from refusing the transfer of youth to the adult system in the first place.  Furthermore, as a nation, are there things we could be doing on the front end to reduce some of the societal indicators that have a tendency of being associated with youth committing crimes before they turn eighteen?  Some argue that by focusing energy and efforts towards the reduction of child poverty, protection from child abuse, expansion of access to mental health and other support services, and improvement in school quality youth might not end up in a courtroom confronting in a judge in the first place and therefore not have to face the possibility of one of the harshest sentences available, life without the possibility of parole.

Because of their age and continual ongoing development of their brains, youth, as a whole, are arguably more capable of maturing, changing, and growing through rehabilitative efforts than are adults.  Rather than automatically giving up on individuals who commit crimes prior to their eighteenth birthdays, when given the opportunity to rehabilitate by being guided through proper avenues, there is a likely chance that many youth offenders will be able to successfully reenter society.  In light of these notions, supporters of this view would likely advocate for the retroactive application of the Miller holding.  On the other hand, one might argue that the harm to society may be greater in general given the potential juveniles possess for high rates of recidivism.  Opponents and relatives of victims killed by juvenile offenders don’t believe that the youth deserve a second chance, in light of the fact that their victims aren’t afforded the same opportunity.  They would be hard pressed to argue that releasing any of the juveniles currently incarcerated and serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole would serve the overarching goal of protecting the public.

As you get older, your conscience and reasoning capabilities develop and mature, a concept that lends support to the notion that juvenile offenders can particularly benefit from rehabilitation efforts.  The state has a legitimate and compelling interest in protecting society and the juvenile offender alike.  Life sentences without the possibility of parole send a message to society that authorities are “tough on crime” and arguably, are utilized to act as a deterrent to prevent future crimes.  But considering that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for regulating impulse control and emotional response, doesn’t stop developing until one’s mid twenties, can juveniles really be held accountable for weighing short term risks and long term consequences in the same way adults are?  Juvenile offenders, like all offenders, must be held accountable for their behavior and must face consequences for their actions, but is condemning them to die in prison through life sentences without the possibility of parole the best way to handle it?

Tuesday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

Juvenile Justice secretary meets with Capitol protesters, Tallahasee.com

Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters listened to the personal stories of several activists who have resided in Gov. Rick Scott’s office since Tuesday of last week.

While the group, mostly comprised of members of social activists the Dream Defenders, is adamant about working to abolish Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, they also have a developed focus on other laws that they say adversely affect the youth in the state.

They had the chance to outline what they would like to see from Walters in her capacity as the DJJ secretary.

Protesters are also working to remove zero tolerance laws where youth are suspended from school for minor offenses and stopping the school to prison pipeline that they say often push youth into prison with adults.

 

Governor directs juvenile justice chief to meet with protesters, Miami Herald

Gov. Rick Scott met Monday with his juvenile justice secretary, Wansley Walters, and directed her to meet with a group of student protesters who occupy part of the state Capitol for a sixth straight day
in opposition to Florida’s self-defense law.

Scott met with Walters at DJJ’s Tallahassee offices on Monday morning and they emerged to speak to reporters afterward in a hastily-called media availability.

Scott  met with the protesters last Thursday night in his office and rejected their request that he call a special legislative session to repeal the self-defense law, known as “stand your ground.” The law is widely perceived to be at the heart of George Zimmerman’s decisions on the night he fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, during an encounter in Sanford in February 2012. Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder.

“I believe in our stand your ground and our self-defense laws in our state,” Scott said. “But I appreciate the fact that they expressed their concerns.” The governor reiterated his suggestion that the young protesters should focus their concerns on state legislators who passed the self-defense law in 2005.

 

Michigan juvenile lifers: Joint hearing scheduled on proposed changes to unconstitutional state law, MLive

LANSING, MI — State lawmakers are expected to hear testimony next month on proposed changes to Michigan’s “juvenile lifer” law, which was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court more than a year ago.

Chairs of the House Criminal Justice and Senate Judiciary committees have scheduled a joint session on August 14 for testimony — but not a vote — on bipartisan legislation to update state law in response to the ruling.

Michigan law gives prosecutors broad authority to seek adult charges against minors convicted of certain crimes, including first-degree murder. If convicted, those minors face mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision released in June of 2012, said that such mandatory sentences amount to an unconstitutional form of cruel and unusual punishment that fail to acknowledge the potential for character and cognitive development in young people.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — More than a quarter of offenders in West Virginia’s juvenile detention facilities are actually young adults.

State law keeps many juvenile offenders in the custody of the Division of Juvenile Services system until they’re 21 years old. That might need to change, said Denny Dodson, deputy director of the division.

“We either need to change the code or have separate facilities . . .” Dodson said in a recent interview with the Daily Mail.

There’s no policy to keep adult and juvenile offenders separate in the facilities. At one point, advocates said it was good to mix offenders of different ages, Dodson said.

“We took some heat in trying to keep them separate. Obviously, we’re taking some heat for not keeping them separate now.”

A judge recently called the idea into question during a hearing about safety at the Harriet B. Jones Treatment Center, a juvenile corrections facility for sexual offenders and others.

 

The Prison Rape Elimination Act Has Been Law for 10 Years; Time to Make It Policy, Takepart.com

Ten years ago this week, Congress unanimously approved the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) to end sexual violence behind bars.

The law arrived too late for Rodney Hulin, whose mother, Linda Bruntmyer, testified before Congress in 2002 about the brutal rapes of her son in adult prison and his suicide as a result.

In a grievance letter to prison officials, 16-year-old Rodney wrote, “I have been sexually and physically assaulted several times, by several inmates. I am afraid to go to sleep, to shower, and just about everything else. I am afraid that when I am doing these things, I might die at any minute. Please, sir, help me.”

 

Monday’s Children and the Law News Roundup

From prison to juvenile justice lawyer, San Francisco Chronicle

Francis Guzman, who was sentenced to 15 years at age 15, has become an advocate for juvenile justice.

“Kids don’t make smart decisions,” Guzman said. “But ultimately, you are not the worst thing you have done. The weakest thing I did made me the strongest person I am today.”

Guzman, given the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s “Outstanding Achievement Award” in 2007, is now in high demand to speak in low-performing schools, youth lockups and juvenile justice panels around the country. After putting himself through the UCLA School of Law with financial aid and funds from the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship For New Americans, in 2012 he won a coveted Soros Justice Fellowship, a two-year grant that will fund his work at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland to study alternatives to placing youths who are first-time offenders of serious crimes in adult prisons.

Mother of Virginia boy who was arrested over toy gun criticizes case’s handling, The Washington Post

The gun came from a dollar store. It was a cheap plastic fake with a bright orange tip that Nakicha Gilbert’s 10-year-old son bought during a visit to a cousin’s house.

“It was a toy,” Gilbert said. “A toy.”

Her son had it in his backpack when he went to Alexandria’s Douglas MacArthur Elementary School on Feb. 4, and he took it out on a bus ride home, placing it in his front pants pocket. He showed one boy, who immediately recognized it was not real, according to his mother.

It is unclear how many other children noticed or talked about the toy gun, but one girl told her mother that the episode frightened her. The girl’s mother called the school immediately and e-mailed school officials that she was uncomfortable sending her children to school until she could be certain the 10-year-old was not armed.

Questions remain about abduction of of girl, age 5, The Philadelphia Inquirer

The arrest of a 19-year-old woman in the kidnapping and assault of a 5-year-old West Philadelphia girl may have eased the fears of parents living near the Bryant Elementary School.

But Thursday’s arrest of Christina Regusters left unanswered the larger question of who else – if anyone – was involved in the Jan. 14 abduction of the kindergarten pupila by a woman wearing Muslim garb.

Regusters, a Maryland native who began living with West Philadelphia relatives about a year ago, was officially charged Friday with kidnapping, conspiracy, aggravated assault, rape, and related offenses.

The charge of conspiracy means she allegedly had one or more accomplices. But three others police took into custody with Regusters on Thursday afternoon from the house in the 6200 block of Walton Avenue were released that night without being charged.

“This is very much an active investigation,” said Philadelphia Police Capt. John Darby of the Special Victims Unit.