Locking Children Up and Throwing Away the Key

By Lisa D’Souza

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the death penalty may not be used against someone for a crime committed before the age of 18.  Scientific studies affirm the experience of parents and teachers the world over:  adolescent brains are not fully developed.  It makes sense that we would not mete out the ultimate punishment to a child whose decision-making capabilities are not that of an adult.

There is another punishment just one step shy of the death penalty: life without the possibility of parole.  A life without parole sentence means that a person will spend the entirety of their natural life in prison and die there.  Sadly, there are members of our society for whom this sentence is appropriate.  But can it ever be appropriate for a child?  For someone whose brain is not yet fully developed?  For someone who still has the capacity to learn and to change?

The Equal Justice Initiative has identified 73 children under the age of 15 who have been sentenced to spend their entire life in prison.  Nearly two-thirds of these are children of color.  Many were involved in crimes where older teens or adults were the primary actors.  Some were convicted for crimes in which no one was killed or injured.  Why are these children sentenced to die in prison?

Soon, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider this very issue.  On March 20, 2012 Equal Justice Initiative director Bryan Stevenson will argue two cases before the Supreme Court in which children were sentenced to live and die in prison.  Human Rights Watch has filed an amicus brief and has published a harrowing 47-page report on the prison conditions that face young offenders who have been sentenced to spend their entire natural life in prison.

Juvenile justice courts operate on the rehabilitative principal that children can be shaped and educated.  Scientific studies confirm that children’s brains are still developing well into their teens.  To sentence a child to life without parole is to say that society is willing to consider that child useless and unfit for our society.  Surely such a sentence meted out to a child is cruel and unusual.

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