“Children are constitutionally different from adults. ... Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform ... ‘they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.’”
These are the words of the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama, in which the Court held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments and are therefore unconstitutional.
We should, at all levels of the juvenile justice system, heed this considered opinion.
As a county commissioner, I do not see juveniles with very long sentences held in my local facilities, but that does not mean I find these sentences any less troubling. County officials have the task of upholding justice, ensuring accountability and protecting public safety. It is our responsibility to provide our citizens — including our young residents — with programs and services that help them thrive. When we see a policy or practice that runs counter to those goals and duties, we must speak up.
That is why I led the effort that resulted in the National Association of Counties (NACo) taking an official position against juvenile life without the possibility of parole (JLWOP). NACo policy now states:
“NACo supports eliminating life without parole as a sentencing option for children. We support just and age-appropriate accountability measures for children that will ensure that every child, regardless of offense, is given a meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. We therefore, call upon State Legislatures across the country and the U.S. Congress to enact legislation that abolishes life without parole for children and provides them with meaningful and periodic sentencing reviews. These legislative changes should be applied both retroactively and prospectively so that no child is allowed to have their human rights violated because of when they were sentenced.”
The Supreme Court and scientists — as well as parents, or anyone who knows a teenager — are in agreement that kids are different than adults, and that kids change a great deal as they grow up. Adolescents are immature, they make rash decisions, they often take unnecessary risks, and they have a hard time assessing long-term consequences. They are susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure. These are the characteristics that often get kids in trouble, but they are also the traits they are most likely to grow out of. Numerous scientific studies, relied on by the Supreme Court, have proven this to be true.
Because adolescence is a time of such great growth and change, children have great potential to be rehabilitated. A sentence of life without parole completely rejects the notion of rehabilitation and is an irreversible decision that is “at odds with a child’s capacity for change,” as the Supreme Court said. Dakota County, Minn., where I have served on the board since 1999, handles juvenile offenders with a focus on treatment and rehabilitation, not just punishment, and I encourage other jurisdictions to do the same.
Additionally, juvenile life without the possibility of parole is a major economic drain on society. More than 2,000 people are still serving a JLWOP sentence in the United States. It costs approximately $2.5 million to incarcerate a child for life in the United States, whereas a productive, tax-paying and college-educated adult contributes more than $1 million to society over a lifetime. There are also serious flaws when you look at which children are being sentenced to JLWOP. Consider these startling facts:
- Fifty-nine percent of youth sentenced to juvenile life without the possibility of parole are first-time offenders — they do not have a single other crime on their juvenile court record.
- African American youth are sentenced to life without parole as children at a per capita rate that is 10 times that of white youth.
My hope is that NACo’s adoption of its policy against JLWOP will help elevate this issue at the national level and that more jurisdictions will follow the Supreme Court’s guidance that kids deserve a chance to grow and change in a positive way. Abolishing JLWOP is not about giving kids a free pass. It’s about giving kids a meaningful opportunity to grow and change, and if they do so, to obtain release from detention and become productive members of our communities.