By Mark David Blum, Esq.
Whom among us is at 30 as we were at 10? Dare I say that I was not the man at 45 that I was at 15. Childhood is a phase in life that we all transgress as we mature into the persons that we ultimately become. Lessons learned, mistakes made, and the gathering of life experience are part of what accumulates during our formative years. At present, our nation is struggling with how to deal with heinous crimes committed by children. How we resolve this issue will speak volumes about our own humanity and ability to recognize that decisions made as children should have a limited effect on the remainder of our lives. There has to be a period where we can safely make mistakes and learn from them as we mature into productive citizens.
Fourteen-year-olds convicted of homicide can be sent to prison for life without parole, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled. “We ... confirm what objective evidence already informs us: Contemporary society views the punishment as proportionate to the offense,” Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler wrote for the majority.
What should we do with those who sin against society at such tender ages? Do we accept the argument that some folks at whatever age are so beyond redemption that their lives are no longer worthy of our time and energy? Must they be simply written off, tossed into the prison system and forgotten until dead?
All of us can look back into our own youth and childhood and see errors and serious mistakes we made that but for luck and the grace of God, we are not doing hard time today. Former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson (R) recalls how in his youth he slugged a police officer and was involved in other crimes. Senator Simpson went on to have a glorious career in the service of our nation. There are few if any of us who got through our adolescence without committing acts that would result in prison sentences. Granted, hardly any of us (hopefully) raped nobody, never engaged in armed robbery, and did not shoot our parents. But these are just events on the sliding scales of the larger issue of maturation and education.
The U.S. Supreme Court has already said that children cannot be executed as doing so would be cruel and unusual punishment. Right now, there are approximately 111 people incarcerated for life without parole who committed their crimes while children. No other country in the world has such sentences meted out to children. This alone sets us apart from not only the civilized world but also from the more barbaric and totalitarian states.
Life without parole for juveniles is argued to be an effective crime fighting tool that deals with the uniqueness of life in America. “The U.S. ranked third in murders committed by youths and 14th in murders per capita committed by youths in a 2002 World Health Organization study. The number of convicted juvenile killers in the U.S. puts it in the same category as countries like Colombia or Mexico, so some would say that we cannot afford to have the same, relatively forgiving, sentencing guidelines as developed countries in Western Europe. The conservative Heritage Foundation issued a report arguing, "If the juvenile crime problem in the United States is not comparable to the juvenile crime problems of other Western nations, then combating it may justifiably require different, and stronger, techniques."
To me, giving a child a life sentence is itself an unforgiveable act. Remember, a young prisoner is going to live longer than his older adult counterpart and thus a life sentence really does mean forever and a day. Children’s minds are still in the formative stages and none are beyond rehabilitation. Perhaps a defect in education, environment, or lack of appreciation of what a prison sentence really means contributed to the ugly crimes committed by these children. Situations such as those can be cured and remedied.
A mind that cannot comprehend a life sentence is not going to be deterred by the threatened imposition of one. We as a People have enacted laws that put harsh penalties on certain types of behavior. There are two prongs to having a severe sentence: One prong is that the wrongdoer must be punished severely for his actions. The other prong is to send a message to others that they too face the same risk of prolonged and severe punishment should they engage in a similar act.
But the mind of a child cannot comprehend what means a sentence of ‘life’. Some children have no concept of what means forever. To them, a life sentence is perceived as a week in their room without television.
Clearly by age 14, a child should know that there are societal limits of tolerance. Rape is unacceptable. Armed robbery is intolerable. Shooting your father is beyond the pale. All these acts should be clearly known as being things that people just don’t do to one another without payment of a penalty. Penalties however don’t stop adults from committing these crimes and adults presumably have the mental faculties to accept the risk of their crimes and can be arguably said to be willing to pay the price if they are caught. Having lived 20 or 30 years gives the adult mind the concept of a life sentence and the meaning of lost freedom forever. But the same cannot be said of a child.
I accept the premise that there are potentially some children who are so far gone, so incorrigible, so sociopathic that their removal from society for an extended period of time is in all of our best interests. If left on the streets, these children would clearly be predators and put all our lives at risk. A Michael Meyers (Halloween) can possibly be born and exist anywhere.
What I struggle to accept is the concept of life or life without parole for young children; regardless of the crime. Children can be educated. They can see the error of their ways and learn new ones. None of us is at 40 as we were at 14 and for that reason alone, forever closing the doors to having a life of freedom at such an early age is too much of a punishment.
Children committing violent serious crimes is a real problem. But in the case of children, we need to find a different model around which we tailor punishment. We certainly are not saving the children or ourselves when we impose life sentences on the very young. Instead, we are just destroying for good whatever potential each child has within them. If out of the ashes can rise the Phoenix, then out of the destruction of a crime by a child still lies hope of a life well lived.
Let us be a better people that we are. We must rethink our response to juvenile crimes. While coddling is not the answer, neither is swaddling them in the prison system until death.