The Kids Are Alright. Except for the Black Ones.


Dwayne Betts, guest posting for Ta-Nehisi Coates, has written a really thought-provoking post on juvenile life without parole (JLWOP):

The issue of JLWOP will come before the Supreme Court soon – law firms all over the country are preparing amicus briefs in the effort to sway the courts one way or the other. The two cases in question are both Florida cases, chosen because they are both instances of JLWOP for crimes that didn’t result in murder.  In one, Joe Sullivan was sentenced to JLWOP for raping at 72 year old woman. He was 13 at the time and it was 1989. In the other, Terrance Graham got life for committing a home invasion while on probation for robbery. He was 17. I think these cases were taken because they aren’t murders. It’s hard to argue for any kind of leniency (if you call life with the possibility of parole leniency) when someone has been killed.  The backdrop of this case is the Court’s decision that the giving a juvenile a death the death penalty violates the 8th amendment.

Although the Supreme Court’s verdict in Ricci was disappointing, it has spurred some interesting discussion of racial discrimination and racial disparities.  And in the interest of adding to that conversation, I think it’s worth exploring the racial dimensions of JLWOP.  First, a little bit of background: harsh juvenile sentencing is itself a product of the “mandatory minimums” which state legislatures around the country adopted in panicked response to the severe drug-related violence of the 1980s.  Crack-cocaine exploded in the early 1980s, and brought with it a near-epidemic of violence in the nation’s urban centers.  From 1980 to 1989, the official rate violent crime in the United States increased by 23 percent to 731.8 violent crimes per 100,000 population.  Along with that increase came a significant increase in the juvenile violent crime rate: according to the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, between 1983 and 1994, “arrest rates for juveniles charged with violent offenses jumped 78 percent. The juvenile homicide rate in America reached an all-time high in 1994, with more than 2,300 victims killed that year.”

A panic erupted among Americans, with some sociologists even warning that the country was witnessing the creation of a generation of “super predators.”  An Amnesty International report on juvenile life without parole from a few years ago offers a good description of the national mood at the time:

Fear was rampant as television beamed images of young homicidal killers as lethal as the semi-automatic weapons they carried. Network news inundated homes across the United States with images of defiant teenage murderers, sometimes flashing gang signs.

“America is now home to thickening ranks of juvenile ‘Super Predators,’ radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters,” Princeton professor John J. DiIulio wrote in the 1996 book Body Count, co-authored with John P. Walters and William J. Bennett.

I don’t think it would shock you if I mentioned that most of these images were of young African-American and Latino men.  Remember, the proximate cause of the violent crime wave was the crack/cocaine trade, which was concentrated in urban areas mostly populated by minorities.  As is the case with crime more generally in this country, “juvenile crime” came to be associated with “dangerous minorities.”  And so when state legislatures began passing JLWOP statutes in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a corresponding and dramatic increase in the number of minority youths being tried and sentenced as adults.  Of course, the obvious rejoinder is that minority youth are being tried and sentenced as adults at a higher rate because they are committing crimes at a higher rate.  But the data doesn’t back this up.  Even when you adjust for crime rates, African-Americans (in particular) are far more likely to be tried as adults when compared to their white peers.  Indeed, according to a 2003 report by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, despite the juvenile violent crime rate dropping by more than 25 percent after its peak in 1994, minorities are twice more likely to be certified as an adult.  For violent crime, they were 8 times more likely to be detained, and for drug-related crime, they were 10 times more likely to be detained.  When it comes to JLWOP, an Amnesty International/Human Rights Watch report finds that black youth are serving life without parole sentences at a rate 10 times higher than white youth.

In his post, Betts says that he “can’t begin [to] understand never giving someone who was fourteen at the time of their offense a chance to walk in front of a parole board and plead his case.”  But if you think about JLWOP within the context the broader narrative of black criminality, it makes perfect sense.  Then as now, African-American males – regardless of age – are considered to have a naturally higher disposition towards criminality.  As such, when an African-American teenager – or even boy, in the case of school “zero tolerance” policies – does something wrong, there is not only a far greater chance that it will be considered “criminal” and punished more harshly as a result, but there is also a far greater chance that the child or teenager will be considered irrevocably criminal.  Which, of course, can only be dealt with by lifetime imprisonment.

(x-posted from U.S. of J)


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • This is depressingly spot-on.

  • The idea of this case being heard before the present court makes me despair.

  • Good post. Unfortunately I’m sure my comment won’t be as coherent.

    This reminds me of a discussion I had in law school once about juvenile sentencing and the death penalty for minors. In many of the cases we read, the opinion of the courts reflected an idea I think is held by most people, that there is something wrong with not allowing a child to redeem him/herself.

    I think it’s important to think about what kind of penal system we have or want to have – one that’s focused on punishment or one focused on rehabilitation. If it’s the latter, then you have to have a belief that people can change. While that may seem far-fetched in terms of a 45 year old repeat offender, the idea of change can’t be more compelling than when dealing with juveniles.

    In any other circumstance we consider them children and, right or wrong, children are assumed not to fully comprehend their actions or the consequences that result therefrom.

    I don’t understand how we can refuse to give youthful offenders the chance or the tools to change and become law-abiding men and women. Of course I feel strongly about crimes like rape and murder, but I think locking a thirteen year old up and throwing away the key as a matter of policy is ridiculous.

  • good point about the overall strategy of prison. rehab and shorter sentances have always been my goals, but the idea that children are somehow different from adults has always been something i have never bought. ive known enough scumbag 15 year olds who went nuts simply because they knew they were too young for real punishment to make me question the whole idea of having 18 (or whatever) as the cutoff date. i would not mind a tradeoff of more focus on getting prisoners out sooner but throwing more kids in. and the years of being mercilessly teased by such kids has nothing to do with this :).

  • The state in which I live (Colorado) overturned JLWOP sentences in 2006; however, that change was not made retroactive, so we still have 46 people sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole as juveniles. Frontline had a special on JLWOP a couple of years ago and spotlighted five cases in Colorado. Contributing factors to these JLWOP sentences were definitely harsher mandatory sentencing that came about in the early 90’s, as you described, direct file statutes where in some states, including mine, a DA has the option to directly file a case in adult court without any kind of hearing, and felony-murder statutes that allow allow courts to sentence those who were present at the time of a homicide to be sentenced as if they’d committed the homicide. Consequently, a record number of juveniles, some as young as 14 were tried in adult courts and sentenced to LWOP throughout the 90’s. The Frontline special spotlighted some of the more sympathetic cases and the idea that we were the only country in the world to have so many juveniles serving LWOP was appalling to me. I decided to start a blog to explore the issue and I got in touch with advocacy organizations and began to correspond with two of those serving life sentences — one a man who’d murdered his parents at 15 after allegedly being sexually and violently abused for many years and one a woman who drove the “getaway car” during the commission of two brutal murders.

    After some time had passed and I’d been posting about a number of issues and questions, I was contacted by the woman who founded the Illinois advocacy group for family members of murder victims. Her pregnant sister had been brutally and randomly tortured and murdered by a psychotic 16 year old neighbor. She pleaded with me to equally represent the positions of the victims and their families while I explored the issues. She is a death penalty abolition activist and helped to overturn the juvenile death penalty in Roper v. Simons. She was in favor of abolition of the juvenile death penalty because the JLWOP sentence was what would keep the truly dangerous out of society, and I believe there are most definitely some violent criminals who should never be released from prison.

    I stopped posting to my blog last November and came to a point where I could no longer be a vocal advocate for these offenders. While I believe that the JLWOP sentence should be eliminated, my communications with the two offenders — who I grew to both like and to a degree, fear — left me with the sense that the real problem lies in both sentencing and in corrections. I believe that there are many juveniles who, given the environment for rehabilitation and who, after having served long sentences do have a great potential for redemption. I believe that once a juvenile is sentenced to adult prison, where there is no rehabilitation, no counseling and no protection from adult predators, he is lost. I don’t believe most of the juveniles now serving LWOP in my state (and I have studied everything I could find about nearly every case) are remorseful about what they’ve done and I don’t entirely blame them. I believe experiencing the pain of accepting responsibility for their crimes and feeling remorse is a liability in adult maximum security prisons. There are virtually no transition programs to help ex-convicts assimilate back into society in cases where they are released and the recidivism rate is on the order of 70%.

    Jacob, the young man who killed his parents gave me permission to post his letters, which are basically a series of essays in answer to questions I asked. They are a sad and eye opening view into life for someone with a LWOP sentence.

    The last problem that I see with overturning LWOP for juveniles at the federal level is that with sentencing law varying widely from state to state, there will be a great deal of state resistance and likely some unintended consequences.

    I believe JLWOP should be eliminated, but I believe that without massive prison reform, it won’t solve much. If you are interested in any of the JLWOP posts or the interviews, my now somewhat abandoned blog is at