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Guest Voz: Mental health professionals join campaign to stop sentencing juveniles to Life Without Parole

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.

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  • Efrén Paredes, Jr.
    September 25, 2009 at 11:55 am

    Excellent writing! Thank you for helping bring attention to this very important issue. Mental Health America is only one of many groups across the nation who have taken this position. Many organizations and members of the international community will be filing amicus briefs in the above-referenced cases asking the U.S. Supreme Court to end the imposition of life without parole sentences on youth. We must remove the shameful stain of being the only country in the world that sentences its children to die in the bowels of our prisons.

  • cookie
    September 25, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Uh, let me guess. Many if not most of these juveniles are Hispanic?

  • Doubter
    September 28, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    I see; exteme homicidal violence is just something a youthful offender will “grow out of”, and there is nothing fundamentally different between these monsters and average children.

  • Deborah Cordis-Weaver
    September 28, 2009 at 3:50 pm

    Hello. I am a crininal investigator and presently working on a case of a hispanic minor, male that just happened to be at the scene of a murder (which has resulted after a kidnapping). He is being charged as an adult for the murder and kidnapping. In California he will not get the death penalty, but his brother, who was also there, will. LWOP is a very strong possibility here because of the special circumstances of the kidnapping. This article was very interesting and we will be following the supreme court ruling closely.

  • cookie
    September 29, 2009 at 10:01 am

    Yeah and I will be particularly interested in Sotomayer’s ruling on this since the juvenile and his brother are both Hispanics.

  • Indiana Bob
    September 29, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Yo cookie,
    Let’s assume 100% of these kids are Latino. Are you fine with the company we are keeping by not ratifying the UN Rights of Child convention?
    from the article:
    “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.”
    Maybe there are other aspects of the Somalian Justice system we could adopt as well…

  • SHAY
    October 23, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    This is great and i have always wanted to help. How can I help in my home state of Nc?

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