On November 9, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the cases of Sullivan vs. Florida and Graham vs. Florida to decide whether juveniles sentenced to life without parole deserve a second chance.
The stories of Joe Sullivan, sentenced to life when he was just 13, and Terrance Graham who got life at 16 for armed burglary are relatively uncommon. Worldwide there are 100 juveniles serving life sentences for crimes that did not involve a death. But when you factor in crimes that did involve a death, those numbers skyrocket. In the United States, alone, there are well over 2000 inmates who were sentenced as juveniles serving life sentences.
Is that fair? Is it right? Alan Simpson, a former Repulbican U.S. Senator from Wyoming probably answered best when he related, in a recent Denver Post article, that when he was a teen it was only “dumb luck” that he never really hurt anyone. “[Kids],” says Simpson, “do stupid things — as I did — and some even commit serious crimes, but youths don’t really ever think through the consequences. It’s for this reason that every state restricts children from such consequential actions as voting, serving on juries, purchasing alcohol or marrying without parental consent.”
Simpson’s point is well taken. Society recognizes that kids, and perhaps teenagers especially, are not competent or responsible enough to be functioning citizens. And yet, for some reason, as citizens–as a society–we can not bring ourselves to take responsiblity for teenagers’ mistakes.
In Colorado there are more than 40 inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Between 1993 and 2006, District Attorneys around Colorado used their ability to direct file adult charges against juveniles and bypass juvenile court judges to try kids as adults. As Simpson notes, kids aren’t mature enough to make adult decisions in the heat of the moment. But District Attorneys continue to use direct file to meet out cruel and unusual punishments to kids in order to make headlines.
Punishing kids for political gain is unconscionable. We have a juvenile clemency board for a reason. We live in a nation of laws, not just politics. Kids who were sentenced to unfair prison terms and rehabilitated should be released. Judges in Colorado should be allowed to carry out the law and make sure that justice, not retribution, is served.
It’s time for us to take responsibility for our kids; not just as parents, but as a society. Its time, as Alan Simpson puts it, to remember that “When a young person is sent ‘up the river,’ that all rivers can change course.”