Posts Tagged ‘Life Sentences’

We often hear about someone getting “life without parole” for some particularly heinous crime. It is a harsh sentence, one that precludes a person’s ability to change, to make amends, and then move on. But one may say, “a harsh punishment for a harsh act.”

But what about people who are serving live without parole for minor offenses such as stealing garden tools or taking a wallet? The ACLU has posted a powerful graphic entitled “A Living Death: Sentenced to Die Behind Bars for What?” that shows the extent of this sentencing injustice. As the New York Times noted, “If this were happening in any other country, Americans would be aghast…” but this is happening here in our courtrooms and in our prisons. This is just another example of a criminal justice system that is broken, favoring privileged white people.

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I never expected to learn much about hope during the ten years I taught kids locked up in an adult county prison. After all, jail’s a pretty dead-end place. Turns out I was wrong.

I learned a lot about optimism and resilience from some unlikely teachers—my jailhouse students. There was Ray who told me, “I’ve only lived in the world, free, not locked up somewhere, for a total of 6 years and 4 months,” but who firmly believed that God would put a light at the end of his own dark tunnel; or Dario who despite living in shelters, on the streets, or in jails completed his high school diploma; or Wade who was looking at state prison, yet planning how he’d help his little brother when he got out.

Still, I’m a slow learner. In spite of the Obama optimism, I don’t easily see much hope in our nation. It’s hard to look past the bully culture fostered by Tea Party narcissism and conservative righteousness; by laws that require police to suspect, stop and question, anyone whose skin is darker than theirs or whose name hints of Latino origins; by churches who kick children out of their schools because of their parents’ sexual orientation.

That’s why I was pleased, relieved, and frankly startled when the Supreme Court, an institution which in my opinion hasn’t been this country’s greatest source of hope lately, ruled recently that it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles who have not committed homicide to life behind bars without the possibility of parole.

Back in November 2009, when I first wrote on this site and elsewhere about the court’s hearing of this case the reasons for overturning this law seemed so simple and obvious that I was embarrassed to be laying them out so carefully: Yes, kids commit crimes, but they also are able to, and do, learn and change.

But it wasn’t so simple and obvious—that is, if I went by the angry and, in several cases, vitriolic reactions I got from some readers. By their way of thinking, once a person, young or old, committed a crime they were exiled from the human race and thus excluded from the decencies and protections we grant each other. It didn’t matter if the children involved committed their crimes when they were only 13 or 14; that they hadn’t killed anyone during that crime. They deserved to be locked up for life, to die in prison. “Cruel and unusual punishment,” to use the 8th Amendment’s bone chilling phrase, was what they deserved.

It was heartening, then, to see the Supreme Court recognize that, indeed, juveniles have “limited moral culpability,” and that this limited culpability was not an issue of choice but rather the product of cognitive development.

Research into the brain’s “executive functioning” shows that young people don’t fully develop responsible decision making skills until sometime in their twenties. Today’s media in exploring the commonplace trend among twenty-somethings still living at home, slow to make their place in the world, often cite this research. But you rarely hear about that research when it comes to troubled young kids, kids who are usually minority, poor, under-educated, and disenfranchised. Nobody wanted to hear about executive functioning when 17 year old Anthony, a student of mine with developmental disabilities and no prior record, was arrested for snatching a purse. The tough-on-crime county DA running for reelection saw to it that Anthony was sentenced to 5 years in state prison. Now the Supreme Court has challenged that thinking, at least in the case of life term sentencing without parole for nonhomicidal crimes.

The Justices’ ruling also brings the United States closer to the global community’s standards of criminal justice. We have stood outside that circle of justice for too long as a nation that locks up 1 out of 100 citizens, that uses torture, and executes people. Justice Kennedy in writing the majority opinion noted that the United States “is the only Nation that imposes life without parole sentences on juvenile nonhomicidial offenders,” a sentencing practice that “is inconsistent with basic principles of decency.”

In lockups across this country, hope usually comes in smaller doses: a letter from the “shorty” you thought had dumped you; a meeting with your Legal Aid lawyer who finally got you a court date after months of waiting; a job working in the kitchen for a buck a day.

The Supreme Court’s message of hope, slight as it might be—the recognition, as Justice Stevens wrote, that “Knowledge accumulates. We learn, sometimes, from our mistakes”—might take a long time to trickle down to the kids that I taught and their peers, if it ever does. But when, and if they get the word, I know they won’t be surprised by the logic behind the decision. I can hear that chorus of bored adolescent boys now, “Yeah, and?”

Sometimes, we adults are the slowest learners of all.

There are 109 inmates serving life sentences without parole for non-homicide crimes they committed when they were 18 or younger. Some, put behind bars when they were 13 or 14, have been locked up for twenty or thirty years.

Those 109– minors then, adults now in their prime, or at least they should be, if they weren’t facing a slow, cruel death in jail– are a part of something that is uniquely American. According to Amnesty International, the United States is the only country that imprisons children for life (the same country, the PEW Charitable Trust reported in 2008, that now incarcerates one out of every one hundred of its citizens).

This year the United States Supreme Court has agreed to consider two of those 109 cases. One involves a man who, at the age of 13, robbed and raped an elderly woman in 1989; the other was 16 when he took part in two break-ins in 2005. Each was sentenced by a Florida court to life without parole. The high court must decide whether such life imprisonment is “cruel and unusual punishment.”

There are over 50 groups filing in support of these two inmates. It’s a roll call of religious, legal, correctional, educational, medical and psychological professionals. As varied as the groups are, there’s not much difference in their reasoning. All the briefs, whether based on spiritual belief or scientific research, come down to the same thing, to something that seems obvious to me: children change, develop, are redeemable; children are vulnerable to immense forces in their lives, forces that they can’t control but sometimes act out of.

It seems like a lot of effort for two people (or 109, depending upon how you look at it) who, when they were young, did some pretty terrible things. But those hundreds of professionals and concerned citizens know that if we don’t stop it now, there’ll be a lot more than 109 kids facing the same fate, given the country’s mood when it comes to kids and crime. It is a mood that was set into motion in the mid-1990s when some political scientists warned the public of the impending threat of young “super-predators,” and so the jihad on juvenile crime began.

Despite the juvenile justice system’s earlier, fundamental belief that youthful offenders can and should be rehabilitated, today’s laws are more about retribution and revenge. These draconian laws seem written for monsters, and it’s not surprising, when you consider the hype surrounding youth culture today and the media-fed images of teenagers as ruthless street thugs.

I don’t know any of the 109 inmates living out their own death penalties, but over my ten years of teaching high school kids serving time in an adult lockup I’ve met my own 109+ young men and women. The teens I worked with weren’t serving life sentences without parole, but they very well could have been if, as they would say, they “were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

These locked up youngsters had been a part of the system– family court, foster care, group homes– for most of their short lives. They didn’t sign up for it; they got put there one way or another, by the actions of a neglectful mother, an alcoholic father, a teenage girl who didn’t find it fun anymore to take care of a baby. Kids like Donald, a student of mine, whose mother sent him out to the streets at 11 years old to sell drugs to support her crack habit, and where he eventually found his own habit; or Warren, whose 16 year old mother practically pickled him in alcohol while she was pregnant, and who was walking proof of the damage done.

These kids didn’t volunteer for a life spent among strangers in every variety of state childcare institution. They were there until they got tired of it, as many battered and abused kids eventually will, and started making their own choices– the wrong choices, but when I heard what limited resources they had to work with I wondered, “How could it be otherwise?” Choices that led them to juvenile detention, maybe drug rehab or a psych hospital, then back on the streets to set the whole cycle spinning again. Until finally the cops got involved. Suddenly, they weren’t seen as kids anymore (although they were), and they landed in the county lockup.

The kids I taught weren’t locked up for life like the 109, but they might just as well have been, because no matter how long a kid spends in prison, it’s a life sentence. Get put in jail and the door shuts on your life, on Life, and, just so you don’t forget it, all day long you hear cell doors, hallway doors, bullpen doors slamming, clanking, shuttering shut. No child (take a long, hard look sometime at a 15 year old boy you know and tell me he’s not a child) should be sentenced to live in the squalor only a prison can manufacture: the constant noise; the rancid smells; the aimless violence; the fear of always watching your back; the boredom of endless hours of Jerry Springer.

It’s almost commonplace these days to say that if you lock kids up all they learn is more ways to do crime. But I don’t think that’s the worst of it. Lock kids up and they come out of prison carrying things even I, with my ten years of daily jail life, can’t imagine. I’m not so much worried about what new criminal activity they might learn. What I worry about is all the new reasons they garner for doing more crime– the renewed rage at themselves for being what they are and what they failed to be; at the families, communities, schools, churches, the country for letting them down and reinforcing their sense of worthlessness.

But shouldn’t those 109 be held accountable? Shouldn’t any criminal be made to take responsibility? Indeed. Ask any of my jailhouse students the same question and most would agree. But accountability doesn’t mean punishment; it never has, except in the parlance of today’s criminal justice system. It means not turning away from what you did and the consequences of your actions, but looking at it square on and learning a better way of living.

There are many ways to do this in jail. Restorative justice programs are one very effective approach, tough love so tough that not many adults I know outside of prison could stand up against that personal scrutiny. Sunny Schwartz shows that in her spunky, powerful book, Dreams from the Monster Factory, which describes her restorative justice work with long-term California inmates. In the county jail where I worked some of my students went through a similar victims’ awareness program, and even the most hard-edged guys who swore nothing would ever or could ever touch them were moved.

Because accountability is based on the premise that people can and do evolve. One of the most moving of the legal briefs in support of the petitioners in the upcoming Supreme Court hearing was filed by eight “former juvenile offenders” whose life stories argue for not shutting off the possibility of such transformation.

Some had been convicted of very serious crimes that could have resulted in sentencings similar to the 109 had circumstances been different. Instead, they were given the opportunity to amend their lives and consequently made “significant contributions to their communities.” The eight include a Broadway actor; a former United States senator; a Latino poet and community activist; a defense attorney; a software executive; and a UNICEF children’s advocate.

The changes made by the young men I worked with might not seem as noteworthy, but to them they were seismic. Anthony, while serving time for a robbery, got his GED. When he was released he started slowly to turn his life around with the help of our school social worker. He got a menial job, then went to college part time. Eventually, supporting himself the whole time, living in SROs in the Bronx, he received his social work degree and now works with “at-risk” kids.

For Alex, the process was more difficult. After multiple arrests he knew he had to do something different or he would end up a lifer or dead on the street. He made the toughest decision of his 17 years: to leave the only neighborhood he’d ever known for a lonely, anonymous life (or so he felt) on the West Coast with an uncle he barely knew. He made the move, got a hospital custodial job and then started to work towards his dream of being a marine biologist. For many of my other students the changes were smaller– the decision to join Job Corps; to get into rehab; to contact a father not spoken to for years. Nevertheless they were still positive steps.

Each of these stories is a rebuke to laws that would lock kids up for life without parole. It’s vital that accounts like these be heard so that the American people realize that the “super-predators” they’ve been taught to fear are first and foremost children; and so that the nine justices see to it that no more children are denied the right to change and are protected against the “cruel and unusual punishment” of a slow death in prison.

This post originally appeared at Beacon Broadside