OP-ED: Ten Minutes to Convict, 70 Years to Exonerate

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Marcy MistrettAt the end of last year, 70 years after the state of South Carolina executed 14-year-old George Stinney Jr., he was finally exonerated. A judge threw out his murder conviction, citing constitutional violations of due process. Young Stinney was arrested, convicted and executed within an 84-day period in 1944. He was thought to be the youngest person executed in the United States in the 20th century.

Sixty years after his tragic execution, the U.S. Supreme Court did finally prohibit the execution of youth under the age of 18 in Roper v. Simmons (2005). This was the first of several Supreme Court decisions that recognized the “uniqueness” of youth as different from adults based on evolving brain research. Those decisions also determined some extreme sentencing for youth under age 18 constitutes cruel and unusual punishment (Graham v. Florida, 2010 and Miller v. Alabama,  2012). This year, the Supreme Court, once again, will examine this issue in Toca v. Louisiana to determine if the ban on a mandatory juvenile life sentence without parole is retroactive.

Despite strong and steady progress by the Supreme Court in upholding the unconstitutionality of mandatory extreme sentencing of youth, states have not stopped treating kids as adults and prosecuting them in the adult criminal justice system. So while it is no longer permissible to sentence kids to die or to sentence them to life without parole, it is still OK to treat them as adults, despite what brain science tells us about kids being different. Each year, states send nearly 200,000 youth to be prosecuted, sentenced and incarcerated in the adult criminal justice system; a system in which they don’t belong. This raises the question: What do we learn from George Stinney’s case?

If you asked the state of South Carolina, probably not much. South Carolina remains one of nine states that automatically prosecute all 17-year-olds as adults, even those arrested for nonviolent offenses or arrested for the first time. South Carolina will still prosecute children of any age for murder in the adult system; the state statute permits such prosecution for kids even younger than George Stinney Jr.

We know that youth placed in the adult system are 34 times more likely to recidivate than their counterparts in the juvenile system. Often, these youth recidivate faster and at a more dangerous level once cycled through the adult system. This is not surprising given the lack of rehabilitative opportunities offered in the criminal justice system for adults, let alone for children. And, as brain science and practice has confirmed, youth that receive rehabilitative services can benefit and contribute positively to society.

George Stinney Jr.’s exoneration offers a glint of hope for the future of the criminal justice system. Systems are finally acknowledging unconstitutional actions of the past. The question remains, though, how many more young lives must be lost before we start treating kids as kids?

Marcy Mistrett is the chief executive officer of the Campaign for Youth Justice, an advocacy group dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youth under 18 in the adult criminal justice system. For additional information, please visit, www.cfyj.org.

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