Nelson Mandela once said “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” I guess with 1% percent of our population currently incarcerated one could say that all is well in our nation. After all, it’s only 1% – a very small number. Sure, who cares that our jails and prison population just happens to lead that of any country in the free world – uh-huh, that’s right, pun intended.

Yeah I know, you really don’t care because, well, as long as they’re locked away your world seems a bit safer, right? Yep, as long as you or your kids are safe is all that matters, right? Well if I tell you that currently there’s an estimated 2,570 juveniles serving life without parole in America today, how would that make you feel? Would that number also seem small and insignificant so as to not warrant any concern?

OK, screw the numbers, let’s put a face to this:

So how did it get this way? Well, somewhere in the mid 90s when our first Black president Bill Clinton was in office, state and federal legislators created policy irrationally motivated by fear – which in turn was federally signed by Clinton – to address a perceived new wave of crime. Crimes that were committed by what political scientist John DiIulio  (a Neo-Conservative Bush-ite) termed “super-predators”. Yep, Clinton had Black people happy alright. Not only did he give them jobs, legislation he signed helped to throw a bunch of them in prison.

The only juveniles we hear about doing crazy sh*t are white kids!

I realize that’s the perception, but just like the obvious reality that is the racial disparities with  incarcerations in America. One wouldn’t be off target suggesting that the same is true when it comes to juvenile offenders and life sentences. As a matter of fact, according to a 2005 report from Human Rights Watch, black youth receive life without parole at a rate about 10 times greater than the rate of white youth. Hmm, imagine that; yeah, things don’t look too good for those kids in Chicago that killed Derrion Albert. As a matter of fact, the kids involved in the Jonesboro Arkansas school shooting from 1998 are out of prison after serving time as we speak; one of them was just released last month. If only those kids in Chi-town would be so privileged.

The way I see it RiPPa these kids are monsters and should pay!

Yeah, I realize that’s often the attitude when it comes to crime and punishment. Yep, don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time is what they always say, right? Heck, there are people among us who believe in the age old biblical idea of an eye for an eye. That said, why don’t we just go right ahead and kill these little monsters. Surely that would save tax payers a lot of money doing so, right? Uh-huh why waste time with any attempts at rehabilitation; these kids are beyond repair. I mean that was the idea pushed by conservative policy makers back in the 90s, right?

Well it’s a good thing we have the Supreme Court presiding above all other courts in the land. I say that because back in 2005, in the case of Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of juveniles in America is unconstitutional. Back then, Justice Anthony Kennedy served the decisive swing vote, and was heavily persuaded by research that showed that teenage brains are less capable than adult brians of evaluating decisions. Research also suggested that adolescents’ “characters” are not “fully formed.”

OK, so that said, why even house them for the rest of their natural lives? Surely not because it serves the need for rehabilitation, no? I mean how will we ever know if they’re successfully “rehabilitated” if they’re never released? How exactly can we then come to a conclusion that they eventually come to a point where they become capable of evaluating decisions as adults should, or do? Something tells me that rehabilitation is not the primary interest when it comes to these juvenile defendants. Neither is the idea of helping their brains becoming fully formed either. There is no scientific method that gives us the ability to predict which 13-year-olds will become high-rate offenders over the rest of their lives as is the assumption.

The example of Kruzan in the above video which involves a brutal killing committed by an abused and frightened child who is now a remorseful adult, suggest an equally obvious conclusion: that juveniles who commit heinous crimes are capable of being rehabilitated. If it’s unconstitutional to execute a juvenile defendant, should the same be true when it comes to giving them life sentences?

Currently the Supreme Court is hearing arguments to come to a determination in the cases of two Black men – Terrance Graham & Joe Sullivan (both pictured directly above) – sitting in Florida prisons, both serving life sentences for serious crimes which never resulted in homicides that they committed before they were both 18yrs old.

Considering that the United States and Somalia are the only two countries in the world who have failed to sign the United Nations convention on Rights of the Child, which explicitly forbids “life imprisonment without possibility of release” for “offenses committed by persons below 18 years of age.” One has to wonder just how civilized a society we really are here in the U.S. – from the looks of it, we’re in great company, don’t you think? The irony of that, is that there is a teenage captured Somali national currently sitting in a U.S. prison currently awaiting trial and a possible life sentence for an act of piracy on the high seas earlier this year.

Nelson Mandela was right when he shared that opening quote I used in the beginning of this piece. Equally as profound was when he said this: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”  With that said, I hope the Supreme Court thinks long and hard on this one, because in my view, it just doesn’t seem right.

SUGGESTED READING: The Myth of the Super-Predator


QUESTION: Where do you stand on juveniles receiving life sentences, and why?