This week I had an opportunity, albeit a brief one, to watch as the U.S. Supreme Court hear oral arguments in two cases involving the sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole, or as advocates for ending the practice call it, JLWOP.
The courtroom was packed, with many in attendance having camped out the night before in order for an opportunity to hear Bryan Stevenson, from the Equal Justice Initiative, plead the case for eliminating JLWOP sentencing. This felt like a historic moment for me, because if the justices are convince by Stevenson’s arguments in Miller v. Hobbs and Jackson v. Alabama, the futures of more than 2,600 individuals currently serving JLWOP sentences could change decidedly. This may also be the last time they have such a promising chance.
Critics of the JLWOP movement argue that if you take a life you should be held accountable. True. In fact there is no greater case to be made for that position than the movement to get justice for Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen who was gunned down for being black in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. There is nothing more brutal than murder, and there nothing more precious than life.
The science is clear, and the reality is that children lack the ability to reason and ration as adults, and to fully understand the consequences of their actions. JLWOP sentences don’t deter crime. These punishments exacerbate already tragic situations. Victims lose, and so do young offenders and everyone who loves them. And so do you and I. Because society bears the cost of proving food, shelter and health care for these teens for the 30, 40, 50 or more years they sit in prison waiting to die.
Like most people from Michigan, I cringe each time I hear someone announce state rankings of anything negative, fearing that we will be included. That is the case when it comes to JLWOP. Michigan ranks No. 2 in the nation, behind only Pennsylvania, when it comes to the number of children we have sent to prison for the remainder of their lives. There are currently 359 inmates serving JLWOP sentences.
Immediately after Tuesday’s Supreme Court hearing I had an opportunity to talk to many people who sat through the oral arguments, and they were all impressed by the case that Stevenson presented. The justices are expected to render a decision by the end of June. Stevenson argued that the Supreme Court should not allow for the unique status a child legally to be ignored in a criminal context when it is recognized and protected in all other areas of law. He also argued, with the recognition that comes with child status, mandatory sentences of life in prison amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
Over the next few months, while we await a Court decision, we will continue ratcheting up our advocacy efforts aimed at changing our state’s JLWOP sentencing laws. It is time Michigan changes its approach to sentencing children.