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.