Death penalty opponents were overjoyed at the U.S. Supreme Court’s
decision last March to join nearly every other nation on the globe and ban teen
executions. But that joy should be tempered by yet another appalling fact about
America’s criminal justice system. The U.S. locks up more juveniles for
life without parole than all nations combined. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty
International count more than 2,000 inmates currently serving life sentences
without the possibility of parole in U.S. jails. And, as is the case with the
death penalty, the no-parole sentences are not race neutral.
Black teens are ten times more likely to receive a no-parole life sentence
than white youths. They are even more likely to get those sentences when their
victims are white, and they are tried by all-white or majority white juries,
and those same juries seldom considered their age as a mitigating factor. Also,
a significant number of those sentenced to no-parole sentences did not actually
commit murder but were participants in a robbery or were at the scene of the
crime when the death occurred. The majority of the teens slapped with the draconian
sentence had no prior convictions, and a substantial number were aged 15 or
The harsh sentence and the racial disparity is so glaring that former Congressman
Ron Dellums and the National Bar Association, an African-American legal group,
have demanded that courts, and DAs drastically reform their policy of treating
teen offenders as adults when asking for and imposing no parole life sentences.
Their plea so far has fallen on deaf ears.
Judges, and juries say that violence is violence no matter the age of the perpetrator,
and that punishment must be severe to deter crime. Prosecutors and courts in the
42 states that convict and impose no-parole life sentences on juvenile offenders,
with Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Michigan, and Florida, leading the pack, have repeatedly
rejected challenges that teen no-parole sentences are a violation of the constitutional
prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Though murder rates have plunged
to near record lows, the public is still scared of violent crime, and that especially
includes fear of young persons that commit violence. Lawmakers are loath to do
anything that make them appear soft on crime. That is still considered the kiss
of death for political careers.
Yet, most experts agree that children don’t have the same maturity, judgment,
or emotional development as adults. In a report on juveniles and the death penalty,
Amnesty International found that a number of child offenders sentenced to death
suffered severe physical or sexual abuse. Many others were alcohol or drug impaired,
or suffered from acute mental illness or brain damage. Nearly all were below
Despite Hollywood sensationalism and media-driven myths about rampaging youth,
and the oft-cited example of Florida youth Lionel Tate, who committed murder,
and got a relatively lenient sentence only to be accused of committing another
crime, most experts insist that children are not natural-born predators. If
given proper treatment, counseling, skills training, and education, most can
be turned into productive adults.
The irony is that the Supreme Court’s ban on executing those who kill
as teens may actually work against no-parole reform efforts. The thinking is
that since states no longer can execute juvenile offenders, than it’s
far more humane to sentence them to life sentences. Victims rights advocacy
groups claim that taking away the option of no parole sentences for juveniles
will weaken crime deterrent. This makes it even tougher to make the case that
counseling treatment, and education is the more effective way to redeem young
people who commit than harsh sentencing, but it is.
Then there’s the question of race. The racial gap between black and white
juvenile offenders is vast and troubling. The rush to toss the key on black
juveniles has had terrible consequences in black communities. It has increased
poverty, fractured families, and further criminalized a generation of young
Those who commit crimes, especially murder, no matter what age they are must
be punished, but the punishment should not only fit the crime, it should also
fit the age of the person that committed it, and the circumstances that drove
them to commit their offenses. If a juvenile offender with the right help can
turn their life around, they deserve that chance, and judges should be able
to give it to them. The Supreme Court majority that voted to ban juvenile executions
called teen executions shameful. They recognized that the practice cannot, nor
should not, be justified on moral or legal grounds, and that it was past time
to put a stop to them. The same can be said about teen no-parole life sentences.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for BlackNews.com,
an author and political analyst.