On March 20, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on two cases in which the defendants were just fourteen when they committed murders. In the 2003 case of Miller v. Alabama, Evan Miller and a friend robbed a neighbor, stealing $300 and a collection of baseball cards. Both Miller and his accomplice attacked the man with a baseball bat and later killed him by setting his house on fire. In the 1999 case of Jackson v. Hobbs, Kuntrell Jackson robbed a video game store with two older friends, one of whom shot the store clerk. In both cases, the youthful defendants were sentenced to life without parole.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide by the end of June whether juvenile offenders may be sentenced to punishment as harsh as life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for cases involving murder. We urge the court to eliminate the sentence of life without parole for minors. Juveniles deserves a chance to turn their lives around.
In 2005, the court banned the death penalty for minors and in 2010 banned life sentences without parole for youth convicted of crimes other than murder. Despite this, many factors play in to the sentence when a minor is convicted of a felony. Thirty-nine states have passed laws that make life without parole the usual punishment for murder, even for juveniles. However, only 18 states have implemented this law on those who committed murder when they were 14 and younger. According to a March 20 New York Times article, about 80 juveniles have been sentenced to life without parole for a crime that occurred under the age of 14 since 1971.
Although we understand that specific crimes may be horrific and would have led to a life sentence for an adult offender, youth are in a different circumstance than adults. Hence, subjecting a minor to a life behind bars without the possibility of parole is unjust and should violate the Eighth Amendment — the protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Minors sentenced to a life in jail will die in prison without any hope or chance to change for the better. According to psychiatrist Dr. Peter Ash of Emory University, violence toward others tend to be most apparent during adolescent years. However, he said, “two-thirds to three-quarters of violent youth grow out of it. They get more self-controlled."
According to court papers from these cases, Bryan A. Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that represents defendants who have been sentenced to unfair treatment, explained that youth are developmentally different from adults: “teenagers are neurologically, hormonally, and emotionally hard-wired for sensation-seeking, impulsivity, poor foresight, worse judgment, and control failure.” After examining oral arguments in the Miller and Jackson cases, the Supreme Court has “found that there are critical differences between adolescents and adults in maturity and susceptibility to peer forces and other forces,” according to the New York Times. Therefore, the Supreme Court, now that it recognizes the difference, should begin to take the next step to differentiate the punishment adolescents receive from the punishment adults are sentenced for committing murder.
Convicted teens should be offered the opportunity to live a life with the chance of parole and be given educational and occupational opportunities. Otherwise, they are unable to experience the outside world once again or grow into an adult. Therefore it would be pointless for them to change — their life is already set for them.
Depending on the severity of the case, a minor would either be expelled from his or her school, be put on probation, sent to a juvenile hall, or be sentenced to life with or without parole. Minors should try to be reintegrated back into the community. If they fail this second chance, then they should be sentenced to life in prison.
Allowing juveniles to be reintegrated into the community gives them something to hope for. In a March 19 article on ABC news, Edwin Desamour, who committed murder in Philadelphia when he was sixteen, is a perfect example of how life with parole and rehabilitation is effective. Desamour earned his release in prison from parole and founded “Men in Motion in the Community,” a support organization with the purpose of proving good examples for children at risk. “People can change; it takes support and guidance,” Desamour said in the article.
Everyone is human, and inherently can learn from the past. Therefore, a second chance should be given for the opportunity correct the first wrongdoing.
A version of this article first appeared in the April 27, 2012 print edition of The Lowell.