One of my pet peeves is the way we treat children who commit crimes. For some reason, we treat them more harshly than we do adults. We feel compelled sentence them to long sentences, long mandatory minimums, and sentences with no possibility of parole. We like to charge them as adults, the younger the better, and inexplicably place children in prison with adults.
More bizarre is that we allow this to occur despite knowing what could happen to these kids. It makes no sense for us to charge 8-year-olds as adults. It makes no sense for us to imprison a 14-year-old to life without the possibility of parole. It makes even less sense to lock them in solitary confinement or sentence them to death.
The latter the Supreme Court addressed several years ago. They banned juvenile executions in 2005. However, life without parole still remained in place. Now they have struck that down as well, and made the ban retroactive:
The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a Louisiana man sentenced to life without parole some 50 years ago for a murder committed as a 17-year-old juvenile has a right to have his sentence reviewed.
In a 6-3 opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court said that its 2012 ruling that banned mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders applies retroactively, because it represents a new substantive rule.
Lawyers for both sides believe the ruling could affect at least 1,000 similarly situated inmates across the country.
The case was brought by Henry Montgomery, 69, who has been serving a life-without-parole sentence that he received in 1963 as a juvenile for the murder of Sheriff Deputy Charles Hurt in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He had asked the justices to take a case decided four years ago called Miller v. Alabama and apply it to his case, even though he committed his crime well before that ruling. In Miller, the court held that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile homicide offenders violate the Constitution.
The court’s ruling Monday does not overturn Montgomery’s conviction, but it allows him either a new sentencing hearing or a new parole hearing.
Justice Kennedy stated of the decision:
“Children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing” because they have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion.
Kennedy said that Montgomery has spent “each day of the past 46 years” knowing he was condemned to die in prison. “Perhaps it can be established that, due to exceptional circumstances, this fate was a just and proportionate punishment for the crime he committed as a 17 year old boy,” Kennedy said. But he added that prisoners like Montgomery “must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.
“Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity — and who have since matured — will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment,” Kennedy wrote.
The “46 years” part is the problem. Who does that serve? Who does that help? Montgomery has spent two-thirds of his life in prison. Is that not enough? If we release him, he will have no idea how to function in our society. He has literally grown up in prison, and chances are he will suffer from a host of mental issues as a result of trying to cope with the switch. Is that not sufficient suffering? What purpose does it serve to hold him for something he did 46 years ago?
I agree with Kennedy that inmates like Montgomery should be given the chance to show they have changed. Is that not the point of prison? Is it not to reform, not just seek vengeance?
Speaking of vengeance, President Barack Obama wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post detailing his decision to ban the solitary confinement of juveniles:
That’s why last summer, I directed Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and the Justice Department to review the overuse of solitary confinement across U.S. prisons. They found that there are circumstances when solitary is a necessary tool, such as when certain prisoners must be isolated for their own protection or in order to protect staff and other inmates. In those cases, the practice should be limited, applied with constraints and used only as a measure of last resort. They have identified common-sense principles that should guide the use of solitary confinement in our criminal justice system.
The Justice Department has completed its review, and I am adopting its recommendations to reform the federal prison system. These include banning solitary confinement for juveniles and as a response to low-level infractions, expanding treatment for the mentally ill and increasing the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells. These steps will affect some 10,000 federal prisoners held in solitary confinement — and hopefully serve as a model for state and local corrections systems. And I will direct all relevant federal agencies to review these principles and report back to me with a plan to address their use of solitary confinement.
Let us make this simple: if you found out that a parent would lock their child in a basement for days at a time as punishment or “to keep them safe” would you support it? Or would you consider that abuse?
This is no different. It is one thing to place someone by themselves to allow them time to calm down. It is another to do it as a form punishment or “safety” because we know that solitary confinement has a clear detrimental effect on a person’s mental state. Adults cannot handle it for very long, so why would we do this to a child?
I am sure there will be people who disagree with these decisions. They are welcome to that opinion, although I think their opinion is wrong on ethical, moral, and common sense ground. We do things to children we would not tolerate (much) if done to adults. How we treat children who commit crimes is the best example of this double standard. It is also a double double standard because any parent if committed these acts we would call it abuse and torture and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.
Therein lies the horrific irony: many of the prosecutors and judges and officials that treat children this way are also the same ones going after other adults who do the same things to children in their care. It is as if the our government only thinks child abuse, torture, and rape is wrong when other people do it.