© Richard Ross. Cell of a 15 year old boy on the mental health wing of King County Youth Service Center, Seattle, WA. Many of the children on the wing here are on psychotropic medication. He didn’t leave his house for three years; he hasn’t gone to school in three years. He is locked up because he assaulted his mother and his mother doesn’t want him. Placement will be difficult. The first step will be reconciliation with his mother. Alternatives to Secure Detention (A.S.D). He is under 24-hour observation and checked on every 15 minutes.
“The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday in two homicide cases testing whether it is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a 14-year-old to life in prison without the possibility of parole,” says Nina Totenberg (Do Juvenile Killers Deserve To Be Executed) for NPR. “There are currently 79 of these juvenile killers who will die in prison.”
Much of the coverage on JLWOP, an undeniably emotive issue, can be skewed. Totenberg, however, deals with the facts very evenhandedly (as she always does when reporting on the labyrinthine legal SCOTUS cases).
She gets to the heart of the matter, which is to ask ‘Are 14-year-old killers always killers who either can never – or do not deserve – to be rehabilitated?’ Essentially, in the 18 states where JLWOP has been handed down, the law believes that is the case.
It is Bryan Stevenson (whose TED appearance I mentioned last week) that is representing the two boys in this case. He argues that it is cruel and unusual to lock up until death a child who does not have the developmental capacity to appreciate his or her actions nor the ability to fully grasp consequence.
“We’re not saying that juvenile offenders who commit homicide can’t be punished severely,” Stevenson says. “They may even end up spending the rest of their lives in prison. But it’s premature, excessive and unfair to say we know this juvenile will never be rehabilitated.”
The problem is that law prohibits the consideration of an individual’s history or the circumstances of the crime in sentencing.
“Judges can’t consider it. Juries can’t consider it. No one can consider it,” says Stevenson.
Totenberg offers the example of Kuntrell Jackson a 14-year-old who robbed a video store with two others. An employee was shot dead but Jackson was not the gunman. “Under Arkansas’ felony-murder law, Jackson was deemed just as responsible as the triggerman. He was tried as an adult for aggravated murder and, under state law, received a mandatory sentence of life without parole,” explains Totenberg.
Sadhbh Walshe has just written (What JLWOP means: life without parole for kids) about a similar case in Pennsylvania. Robert Holbrook was look out for a drugs deal in which a female was killed.
Also in the Guardian, Ed Pilkington video interviews Quantel Lotts who murdered his step-brother in a fight aged 14 (Jailed for Life at 14: US supreme court to consider juvenile sentences). Lotts is in Missouri.
Pilkington puts it to Lotts that he might be a different person now as a 26-year-old. Lotts characterises his childhood – during which he was told violence solved everything – as a “phase.”
As I said in my last post, retribution cannot be eternal. We cannot justify it and we can only tolerate it if we make it invisible.
I close by repeating the words of an adult I met who had served three decades in prison on a LWOP sentence before winning a governor’s clemency against all odds. He said, “LWOP means you’re dying inside. It’s no different to a death sentence. It IS a death sentence.”