This has been a big week for juvenile justice. First, the Supreme Court ruled that adults and children who were sentenced in their youth to mandatory life in prison without parole should be allowed to ask a court to reconsider their sentence. And second, President Obama banned putting incarcerated children in solitary confinement in federal prisons. These are two significant drops in the bucket of the major juvenile justice reforms our country needs.
Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences: The United States is the only country in the world that sentences juvenile criminal offenders to life in prison without parole. Approximately 2570 children have been sentenced to life without parole here, some receiving the sentence when they were as young as 13 years old. On Monday, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court ruled that people who received sentences of life without parole as a mandatory sentence when they were children must be permitted to seek a more lenient sentence or parole. The ruling is limited to mandatory sentences – where the judge was not permitted to factor in the child’s young age or history, nor the circumstances of the offense, before sentencing the child to die in prison. In 2012, the Supreme Court had ruled that mandatory life without parole for juvenile homicide offenders violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments.” But, since then, the states have been divided about whether that ruling applied retroactively to old sentences or only to new sentences issued. It is now clear that the ruling applies retroactively to all mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences.
This means that juvenile lifers in all states can now ask courts to reconsider their sentences and to factor in considerations like how young they were when they committed a crime, how an abusive home or mental disability may have contributed to the poor choices made, or how minimal their involvement actually was. This is incredibly important because Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch estimate that 59% of juvenile life without parole sentences are the offender’s first-ever criminal conviction; 16% of children sentenced to life without parole were only between 13 and 15 years old at the time of the criminal offenses; and 26% of the sentences were imposed on teens who were convicted only as accomplices.
Ending Juvenile Solitary Confinement: We’ve written here before about the barbarism of solitary confinement. That post described the parking space sized cell of the confinement, the lack of human contact, the devastating psychological toll, and how the vast majority of the solitary confinement imposed in this country constitutes torture according to United Nations guidelines. From a juvenile justice perspective, these horrors are enormously magnified. With that in mind, on Monday President Obama made a number of changes for the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons, including banning the practice of placing children in solitary confinement.
Next Steps: This week’s juvenile justice progress is at once huge and not huge enough. The Supreme Court did not rule that non-mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences are unconstitutional. Thus, the Court still needs to go one step further and rule that sentencing a child to die in prison is cruel and unusual punishment under any circumstance. Likewise, banning the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons is an important first step for juvenile justice. But most children are incarcerated in state prison, so until the states follow suit, the problem will persist. And the root of the problem of why children end up in solitary confinement in prison comes down to the immorality of incarcerating children in adult prisons in the first place. Often, children are placed in solitary confinement to keep them safe from sexual assault. The true solution to this problem is to ban incarcerating children in adult prisons because the dangers they face there are far too extreme. It is of paramount importance to stop placing children in solitary confinement, but we also need to keep the children safe. Thus, this week we saw meaningful progress on juvenile justice issues, but there is still quite a way to go.