On Nov. 3, the future for all Americans is at stake at the ballot box, but for some children any possibility of a future outside of prison will be at stake before the Supreme Court. On Election Day, the nation’s highest court will hear arguments on the issue of juvenile sentences of life without parole.
These sentences are contrary to the weight of research and the pursuit of redemption. Indeed, back in 2009 Texas lawmakers prospectively abolished juvenile life without parole sentences.
In Jones v. Mississippi, the Supreme Court will hear the case of a 15-year-old who killed his grandfather. As in all such cases, we must never lose sight of the horror of the act and the incalculable loss of life. Justices will decide whether the court that resentenced Brett Jones to life without parole in 2015 should have considered whether he was “permanently incorrigible.”
Originally sentenced in 2005, Jones was given a resentencing hearing in 2015 in compliance with the 2012 Supreme Court Miller decision that limited the use of life without parole for youths. At that hearing, the evidence included testimony by prison officials on his sincere remorse, his excellent disciplinary record, and the GED he had earned. Nevertheless, Jones was resentenced to life without parole.
The Supreme Court must ruminate on the meaning of the Eight Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, which is vigorously debated among judges and constitutional scholars. However, it is irrefutable that juvenile life without parole is a misguided public policy. Instead of waiting on courts to act, state lawmakers and Congress should outlaw these sentences and enact meaningful second look laws.
First, an avalanche of medical research shows the brains of youths and even young adults are still evolving, especially when it comes to critical faculties such as impulse control and judgment. Of course, all but the severely mentally disabled still know right from wrong and must be held accountable. However, these findings mitigate culpability to some degree and, perhaps more importantly, make such defendants more malleable to rehabilitation.
The data bears this out. A study of juvenile lifers released in Pennsylvania found a mere 1% recidivism rate. Similarly, in Michigan the state began resentencing many youths who had received life without parole sentences in 2016, and of the 70 tracked up until 2019, none had recidivated.
Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, hope is on the horizon in states across the country that have yet to act. In September, the Ohio Senate passed by a 29 to 4 margin Senate Bill 256, which would abolish juvenile life without parole and provide a review after 18 years in non-homicide cases and 25 years in homicide cases.
Similarly, in their upcoming legislative session, Texas lawmakers will again consider legislation to move up parole eligibility from 40 years to 20 years. Medical research demonstrates that people who are incarcerated for long periods have far shorter lifespans and are at least a decade older medically than chronologically. If parole consideration does not occur until after 40 years, few parents will be there to help their adult child successfully reenter. It is more likely that a person leaving prison after four decades in their late 50s will be unable to find employment and face dependency. Consider that someone released from prison in 2020 would not have used a cell phone or email before being locked up in 1980.
Craig DeRoche of Prison Fellowship said, “there are no throwaway people,” but it is easy to throw away tax dollars. A juvenile life without parole sentence exacts a toll of at least $2 million on taxpayers.
Whatever the Supreme Court decides in the Jones case, the verdict is already in on juvenile life without parole and policies that have nearly the same effect. Fortunately, nine states have already acted in recent years to authorize parole reviews after 20 or 25 years. Of course, such reviews are rightly far from guarantees, but first and foremost an opportunity to objectively assess the individual’s current risk to public safety, their record behind bars, and input from the community.
Even those who committed the most heinous acts as a youth need not necessarily be forever defined by that crime. We have within us all the hope to overcome our worst sin and become a better person.