On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court took a welcomed step in protecting juvenile offenders. In Miller v. Alabama it ruled that states could not mandate life without the possibility of parole sentences for youth involved in homicide cases, adding to old and recent precedents that say children must be treated differently in the eyes of the law. While the decision is a step in the right direction, the ruling leaves far more to be done around issues that weren’t directly considered by the High Court in the Miller case. Moreover, since many of those affected by harsh mandatory sentencing laws are poor, disproportionately black, and largely on the losing end of a number of societal failures, what happens to these young people before and after sentencing is also extremely important.
Beginning in the 1980s many states began passing “get tough on crime” laws that created a one-two punch for youth charged with serious crimes. First they would encounter one law that said they had to be tried as an adult, and once in the adult system, they would encounter another law imposing mandatory minimum sentences. For those found guilty of murder, the sentence could be life without the possibility of parole.
As a consequence, kids like the ones involved in Miller—two 14-year-olds who were convicted of capital murder—are required by law in 28 states to be given mandatory sentences that would prevent them from ever again seeing a world outside prison walls. There are about 2,500 prisoners nationwide serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles.
The Supreme Court declined to say that states could never sentence kids to life behind bars, but at least the justices gave courts discretion in sentencing. This allows courts to weigh the important factor of youth: Historically and in this particular case, experts have argued that children are less culpable than adults and are more capable of reform. The Supreme Court’s 5-4 majority decision further noted that other factors such as difficult life circumstances may also be relevant to courts when considering an appropriate penalty.
In the case before the Supreme Court, Evan Miller, who was 14 at the time of the murder, was physically abused by his stepfather, had a mother who routinely used drugs and alcohol, had been in and out of the foster care system, and had already attempted suicide four times by the age of 14.
Sadly, Miller is not atypical of youth who are sentenced to life without parole. A Sentencing Project survey of juveniles in prison for life found that most had experienced severe challenges during childhood. Many were poor (32 percent lived in public housing as one indicator), 47 percent had experienced physical abuse, 77 percent of the girls had been sexually abused, and most had experienced significant educational challenges. Not surprisingly, race was also a determining factor. Not only were 60 percent of juvenile lifers black, but it was apparent that black youth were more likely to receive this harsher penalty if their victims were white.
Although the Court’s decision was a step in the right direction, we as a nation must do more on the front and back end of the juvenile justice paradigm. Reducing child poverty, better protecting children from abuse, expanding access to mental health and other support services for kids experiencing trauma (which underscores the importance of another Supreme Court decision due this week on the constitutionality of health care reform), improving school quality, and finally addressing obvious racial disparities in the nation’s criminal justice system could very well prevent young people from ever standing before a judge in the first place and thus avoid facing the most severe sentences.
On the back end, society should not automatically give up on youth serving long prison sentences. Washing our hands of them and throwing away the key shouldn’t be an option. We should ensure rehabilitative services for these youth who are more likely than adults to change and grow. At some point, after years in prison and with the proper preparation and supports, they may be able to successfully reenter society. That must certainly be the goal.
Unarguably, one of the greatest measures of a society is how it chooses to deal with its most challenging members. Monday’s decision by the Supreme Court to give juvenile offenders the opportunity of parole moves us closer to being the nation to which we all should aspire, although there is still much more to be done inside the courts and out.
Joy Moses is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Poverty and Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress.