Imagine if your life was defined by the single worst thing you’ve ever done. Your identity, future, and purpose suddenly become completely enveloped by one decision - a decision, whether premeditated or made in the heat of the moment, that now owns you. You may have been pressured or never intended to make this choice, but nonetheless it now alters your life trajectory.
This is a reality for the thousands of youth sentenced to life in prison without parole in the United States. Juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) is a sentence which means that they will serve life in prison without a chance for parole.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. In the landmark Miller v. Alabama case, the court found that these sentences violate the Eighth Amendment’s barring of cruel and unusual punishment.
In 2016, the Court ruled in Montgomery v. Louisiana that the Miller decision can be applied retroactively, meaning that the approximately 2,100 people who had been received mandatory life without parole sentences would have the opportunity for a parole hearing or resentencing.
The Supreme Court stopped short of eliminating JLWOP sentences altogether. Instead, they offered what is colloquially known as “the Miller factors” surrounding a youth’s proclivity to change. With this, states are still able to seek life-without-parole sentences for youth. According to the Sentencing Project, “twenty states and the District of Columbia do not have any prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, either due to laws prohibiting the sentence or because there are no individuals serving the sentence at this time.” That means that 30 states allow life-without-parole sentences. The Sentencing Project reports that Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Louisiana make up two-thirds of the JLWOP sentences.
There are currently 2,100 youth serving life sentences or virtual life sentences for crimes committed prior to their 18th birthday. A virtual life sentence means that they have not technically been sentenced to life without parole, but the dates of their sentence extend past the average life expectancy. Thousands of youth are serving sentences without any hope of ever leaving the confines of prison walls.
Should JLWOP Sentences Exist?
In the Graham v. Florida decision, which ruled that juveniles can’t be sentenced to LWOP for a non-homicide offense, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “To justify life without parole on the assumption that the juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society requires the sentencer to make a judgment that the juvenile is incorrigible.”
Justice Kennedy’s remarks highlight a central question that Christians, and society, must answer: is it just to deem youth “incorrigible,” or in other words, incapable of restoration?
As Christians we know that every young person, despite the crime that they have committed, has inherent dignity because they are created in the image of God. This fact alone motivates us to work for just treatment, refusing to condemn youth to a life behind bars without hope for restoration or reintegration back into society. Our faith teaches us that restoration is possible, and that as Christians, we are called to work to restore all things.
JWLOP sentences communicate to youth, sometimes only 13 or 14 years old, that we as a society do not view them as capable of ever changing and improving, or being worthy of restoration.
The consequences of locking up youth without any hope for release have insurmountable effects on the offender and the larger criminal justice system. For 59 percent of youth sentenced to life without parole, the charge was their first offense. By charging youth with such harsh sentences, the criminal justice system denies any inherent differences between a youth and an adult. The American Psychological Association describes the fundamental difference between youth and adults as, “Biologically, adolescent brains are still developing, particularly in regions associated with higher-order functions including impulse control, planning ahead, and risk avoidance.”
When youth are incarcerated for life without parole, this decision changes the entire course of their life; with that brings mental and emotional consequences. According to a report conducted by the Human Rights Watch, “youth offenders interviewed and corresponded with for this report recalled experiencing a wide range of emotions while adjusting to prison. They reported initial feelings of fear, anger, loneliness, or hopelessness. Some youth offenders contemplated or even attempted suicide. Those who had been in prison for ten years or less were still in the midst of the adjustment process.”
Research shows that a youth who receives a lifetime sentence is likely to have been marked by cyclical abuse and overexposure to violence throughout his or her lifetime. 79% of youth sentenced to life without parole report regularly witnessing violence in their home, 47% report being physically abused, and 77% of girls report a history of sexual abuse.
Historically, the punishment of youth offenders in the U.S. stands apart from the rest of the world in terms of the severity of sentencing practices. The U.S. was the last country to halt the practice of executing youth who had committed crimes before the age 18, long after nations with more draconian legal systems, such as China and Saudi Arabia. The sentence of JLWOP also breaks a number of International Treaties, including the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention Against Torture, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The logic behind JLWOP is this: the offender is a lifelong danger to society, unworthy and incapable of redemption. The sentences for their crimes are often decided in a vacuum, without regard to the familial, societal, mental, and physical factors that can influence their crimes.
JLWOP sentences also expose the reality of racial disparities within sentencing. The Sentencing Project reports, “Racial disparities plague the imposition of JLWOP sentences. While 23.2% of juvenile arrests for murder involve an African American suspected of killing a white person, 42.4% of JLWOP sentences are for an African American convicted of this crime.” African American youth face disproportionate odds if accused of a crime ‘warranting’ a JLWOP sentence when compared to their white counterparts.
JWLOP sentences do not to conform to the norms of public justice; instead, they perpetuate a retributive cycle. Rev. Dr. Harold Dean Trulear, National Director of Healing Communities and a Center for Public Justice Fellow, articulates this reality as, “Our flesh and the world mask their cries for revenge in the cloak of ‘bringing people to justice.’ Christians, however, should understand the difference between justice and revenge and seek the highest form of ‘making things right,’ which requires efforts toward restoration and redemption.”
A commitment to justice does not deny the fact that there are crimes that undeniably deserve a punishment to match the severity of the crime. It would be unjust to simply allow for such crimes to go unpunished. However, we must be sensitive to the severity of the punishment being proportional to the severity of the crime, especially in the case of youth offenders.
“Eliminating juvenile life without parole does not suggest guaranteed release of these offenders,” the Sentencing Project reported. “Rather, it would provide that an opportunity for review be granted after a reasonable period of incarceration, one that takes into consideration the unique circumstances of each defendant.”
A commitment to restorative justice means that we as a society must believe that there is a possibility for transformation in a youth’s life. Restorative justice requires time and commitment to the full rehabilitation of the youth, with family and the greater community intricately involved in the process. This lengthy process demands sustainable, long term solutions, rather than short term solutions made in haste. Without a firm commitment to restorative justice, simply terminating juvenile life without parole sentences will be unlikely to solve the multifaceted issues that youth offenders face in our current prison system. In order to facilitate restorative justice, we must acknowledge and work through the complicated nature of crimes committed by youth. In order to do this, our criminal justice system must take into consideration the uniqueness of the youth’s circumstances before seeking to apply a uniform, rigid response to their crime.
JLWOP sentences allow for one decision to determine the outcome of the entirety of a youth’s life, without any hope for reconciliation. As Christians, our faith teaches us that no one is beyond repair. We are all recipients of grace and capable of restoration. Do we believe the same for youth offenders? Our vision for justice must not encompass merely an “eye for an eye” mentality. Ultimately, we must seek the holistic restoration and rehabilitation of youth who, despite the crimes that they have committed, are not beyond repair, and in many cases may be able to one day return to their homes and families as productive and contributing members of society.
-Morgan Barney is a senior Maclellan Scholar at Covenant College competing her degree in International Studies. She co-founded Save Our Sisters, an organization dedicated to fighting human trafficking in Moldova, and advocates for women trapped in sex slavery. She desires to continue in the pursuit of everyday justice through attending graduate school in the near future.