Supreme Court Limits Life Sentences for Kids: A Small Lesson in Hope
I never expected to learn much about hope during the ten years I taught kids locked up in an adult county prison. After all, jail’s a pretty dead-end place. Turns out I was wrong.
I learned a lot about optimism and resilience from some unlikely teachers—my jailhouse students. There was Ray who told me, “I’ve only lived in the world, free, notlocked up somewhere, for a total of 6 years and 4 months,” but who firmly believed that God would put a light at the end of his own dark tunnel; or Dario who despite living in shelters, on the streets, or in jails completed his high school diploma; or Wade who was looking at state prison, yet planning how he’d help his little brother when he got out.
Still, I’m a slow learner. In spite of the Obama optimism, I don’t easily see much hope in our nation. It’s hard to look past the bully culture fostered by Tea Party narcissism and conservative righteousness; by laws that require police to suspect, stop and question, anyone whose skin is darker than theirs or whose name hints of Latino origins; by churches who kick children out of their schools because of their parents’ sexual orientation.
That’s why I was pleased, relieved, and frankly startled when the Supreme Court, an institution which in my opinion hasn’t been this country’s greatest source of hope lately, ruled recently that it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles who have not committed homicide to life behind bars without the possibility of parole.
Back in November 2009, when I first wrote on this site and elsewhere about the court’s hearing of this case the reasons for overturning this law seemed so simple and obvious that I was embarrassed to be laying them out so carefully: Yes, kids commit crimes, but they also are able to, and do, learn and change.
But it wasn’t so simple and obvious—that is, if I went by the angry and, in several cases, vitriolic reactions I got from some readers. By their way of thinking, once a person, young or old, committed a crime they were exiled from the human race and thus excluded from the decencies and protections we grant each other. It didn’t matter if the children involved committed their crimes when they were only 13 or 14; that they hadn’t killed anyone during that crime. They deserved to be locked up for life, to die in prison. “Cruel and unusual punishment,” to use the 8th Amendment’s bone chilling phrase, was what they deserved.
It was heartening, then, to see the Supreme Court recognize that, indeed, juveniles have “limited moral culpability,” and that this limited culpability was not an issue of choice but rather the product of cognitive development.
Research into the brain’s “executive functioning” shows that young people don’t fully develop responsible decision making skills until sometime in their twenties. Today’s media in exploring the commonplace trend among twenty-somethings still living at home, slow to make their place in the world, often cite this research. But you rarely hear about that research when it comes to troubled young kids, kids who are usually minority, poor, under-educated, and disenfranchised. Nobody wanted to hear about executive functioning when 17 year old Anthony, a student of mine with developmental disabilities and no prior record, was arrested for snatching a purse. The tough-on-crime county DA running for reelection saw to it that Anthony was sentenced to 5 years in state prison. Now the Supreme Court has challenged that thinking, at least in the case of life term sentencing without parole for nonhomicidal crimes.
The Justices’ ruling also brings the United States closer to the global community’s standards of criminal justice. We have stood outside that circle of justice for too long as a nation that locks up 1 out of 100 citizens, that uses torture, and executes people. Justice Kennedy in writing the majority opinion noted that the United States “is the only Nation that imposes life without parole sentences on juvenile nonhomicidial offenders,” a sentencing practice that “is inconsistent with basic principles of decency.”
In lockups across this country, hope usually comes in smaller doses: a letter from the “shorty” you thought had dumped you; a meeting with your Legal Aid lawyer who finally got you a court date after months of waiting; a job working in the kitchen for a buck a day.
The Supreme Court’s message of hope, slight as it might be—the recognition, as Justice Stevens wrote, that “Knowledge accumulates. We learn, sometimes, from our mistakes”—might take a long time to trickle down to the kids that I taught and their peers, if it ever does. But when, and if they get the word, I know they won’t be surprised by the logic behind the decision. I can hear that chorus of bored adolescent boys now, “Yeah, and?”
Sometimes, we adults are the slowest learners of all.