By David Shern, Ph.D., President and CEO, Mental Health America
The fall term of the Supreme Court begins on October 5, 2009. Among the cases on the docket to be argued are two dealing with life without parole for juvenile offenders — Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida.
Dr. David Shern
The attorneys for both young men in the cases will be arguing that since their clients’ crimes didn’t involve murder, a life sentence without parole violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
It’s an opinion that is shared by Mental Health America which has adopted a strong policy stand opposing sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders.
The policy was adopted by Mental Health America’s Board of Directors at its September meeting and notes that such sentences violate international law and the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every country in the world, except Somalia and the United States.
The President and CEO of Mental Health America, Dr. David Shern, shares with Latina Lista readers why it’s imperative to change the laws that sentence juveniles to life without parole and recognize and address the real issues that exist in the lives of these young offenders.
We need to change laws and end the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole. These sentences are inconsistent with any purposes which ordinarily guide sentencing.
In 42 states and under federal law, children who are too young to legally buy cigarettes are being tried for crimes as adults and if convicted, they can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
There are currently at least 2,500 youthful offenders serving life without parole in U.S. prisons. Nationally, 59 percent of these individuals received their sentences for their first ever criminal conviction.
Sixteen percent were between the ages of 13 and 15 when they committed their crimes, and 26 percent were sentenced under a felony murder charge where their offense did not involved carrying a weapon or pulling a trigger.
Our society recognizes that juveniles differ from adults in their decision-making capacities as reflected in laws regarding voting, driving, access to alcoholic beverages, and consent to treatment. Adolescents are also more easily influenced by peers and less able to accurately interpret the actions, emotions and intent of others.
We also know that teens who have been victims of abuse or who have witnessed violence may show an increased tendency to overreact to perceived threats. Victims of child abuse and neglect are over-represented among incarcerated juveniles, including those serving life without parole.
Studies of this population also consistently demonstrate a high incidence of mental health and substance use disorders, serious brain injuries, and learning disabilities. In many instances, these juveniles have not received adequate diagnostic assessments or interventions.
Adolescents differ from adults in the way they behave, solve problems, and make decisions. There is a biological explanation for these differences. Recent research has demonstrated that the brain continues to mature and develop throughout adolescence and into early adulthood.
Neuroimaging studies have also shown that adolescents use their brains in fundamentally different ways than adults. As a result, they are more likely to respond impulsively, utilizing a more primitive part of their brain. They are also less likely to stop, think things through, and analyze the consequences of their actions.
The United States is one of the few countries in the world that sentences juveniles to life without parole. The U.N. Convention of the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by 192 nations, except Somalia and the United States, explicitly prohibits the imposition of life without parole for crimes committed by juveniles.
In 2005, the Supreme Court recognized that juveniles are inherently different from adults when it declared that the sentence of death for juveniles constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Their reasoning was based, in part, on our evolving understanding of adolescent brain development, and the increased potential for change and rehabilitation.
The same reasoning is equally valid with respect to life without parole. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will rule that that life sentences without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional.
If they don’t, it is incumbent upon all of us to work to repeal laws in those states which permit a sentence of life without parole. We should also ensure that juveniles are provided with appropriate services while incarcerated that identify and address problems which may have led to the crime and that there are appropriate services available in the community for those juvenile offenders who may be released.
Let’s act to stop this unjust and inhumane policy.