The United States is the only country on earth that sentences children to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Washington is one of 29 states in which life without parole is a mandatory sentence for some children. However, recent United States Supreme Court rulings require that Washington reevaluate the way we sentence children for crimes and change our laws.
Over the last several years, the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that states may not sentence children in the same way that they sentence adults. In a series of recent cases, the court has ruled that; (1) mandatory life terms are unconstitutional when applied to children; (2) children sentenced to prison must be given a real opportunity for release at some point in the future; and (3) courts must individually evaluate each child when imposing a criminal sentence.
The Washington Legislature is now grappling with how to bring our state’s laws into compliance with these principles and, once again, treat children as children. Any changes must include ending life sentences for children.
Brain development research is conclusively proving what any parent knows instinctively, children are different from adults. Like all the other parts of their bodies, children’s brains grow and mature over time. This process continues through childhood and adolescence and into early adulthood. The areas of the brain that regulate impulse control, risk assessment and moral reasoning are the last to develop. Prior to this final stage of brain development, children and teenagers rely upon areas of the brain associated with aggressive, impulsive behaviors. Our abilities to clearly understand the consequences of our actions and weigh risk don’t fully develop until our mid-twenties.
This means that even fully functioning older adolescents are less capable of assessing risks and appreciating the consequences of their actions than are adults. These limitations are particularly severe for children with developmental disabilities, mental illness or those who have faced abuse, chemical dependency or family chaos during their formative years. Children and teenagers often make seemingly incomprehensible choices; choices that reflect their inability to accurately weigh the likely consequences of their actions.
For centuries, law and society have recognized this basic difference between children and adults. We do not allow children to vote or serve in the military, smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. Most rental car companies refuse to rent to anyone under the age of 25 because accident records show that reckless driving is much more prevalent among the young. Similarly, we need to treat children as children in criminal court when standing before a judge.
The United States is alone in condemning children to die in prison. This international consensus against life sentences is based upon the realization that children are less morally blameworthy then adults. The justice system treats a killing in the heat of passion less severely than a planned, pre-meditated murder. Similarly, children who have less ability to understand or think through the impact of their actions, must be treated less harshly than adults. Any rational system of justice has to take this reality into account.
There are many ways to ensure that children are held accountable for their crimes short of locking them up and throwing away the key. A judge need not be required to determine at sentencing that a 14 year old can never be redeemed and must face the rest of his life in prison without any possibility of release. Instead, a just system allows a judge to sentence the child to a long prison term while also ensuring that a court reviews the child’s sentence in the future after the child has matured, taken responsibility for his actions and demonstrated the ability to safely return to society. Children who mature, take advantage of educational and vocational opportunities, and make concerted efforts to improve themselves while behind bars should be evaluated after serving many years in prison and when appropriate be allowed to return to their communities.
If anyone is likely to change and be redeemed, it is a child and redemption is possible, even for children who have committed terrible crimes. Jeff Coats was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder as a 14 year old. After serving 17 years, he was released and is holding down a job. He speaks to groups regularly about the realities of life behind bars for children.
Herbert Rice is currently serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for a crime he committed as a child. Mr. Rice has organized other incarcerated men to provide financial assistance to families living in need. He’s actively promoting the spiritual lives of the men he lives with in prison. Many other men serving life sentences for crimes they committed as children have moved from angry teenagers to responsible adults whether behind bars or in their communities.
We are not to diminish the nature of the crimes for which these men were convicted. Children can commit horrific acts of violence. Being held accountable for one’s actions is an essential part of rehabilitation and children who commit terrible crimes must face significant prison time. However, even a child who commits a crime is still a child. Society has an obligation to treat him as such and should not compound the problem of youth violence by treating children as adults in the courtroom. Sentences must be age appropriate and reflect the individual circumstances of the child standing before the court. Society’s obligation to protect children requires that we hold them accountable, while also providing for rehabilitation, redemption and hope for a second chance at life.
Discarding children for life does not reduce violent crime and we pay a steep cost to incarcerate people who may at some point in their lives pose no threat to society and could be productive members of their community. Approximately $90 million per year is spent nationally to incarcerate people serving life without parole for a crime committed in their youth. In Washington, we will spend over $2 million per child to house each for the rest of his life. Costs of incarceration double once an offender reaches the age of 50, while the chances of returning to prison plummet.
Life sentences also fall disproportionately upon kids of color. Both nationally and in Washington, African American teens are more likely than white teens to be sentenced to life without parole. Research also shows that Black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian-American youths are far more likely to be transferred to adult courts, convicted in those courts, and incarcerated in youth or adult prison facilities than white youths.
Washington’s system mirrors national trends with similarly disproportionate impacts on certain communities. While Black, Hispanic, Asian-American and Native American people are collectively 24 percent of Washington’s population, youth of color make up 47 percent of the men currently serving life without parole for crimes committed as children and 58 percent of the people serving sentences of more than 20 years for crimes committed as children.
Furthermore, these men faced chaotic childhoods. Of the men serving life without parole for crimes they committed as children, 60 percent suffered from sexual or physical abuse, 71 percent had a history of substance abuse and 40 percent were living with mental illness or significant developmental delays. In addition, many of these men were first-time offenders when convicted. One Washington man, convicted for a crime he committed at 13, was at the time the youngest person in history ever to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The vast majority of life without parole sentences imposed on children were handed down in the 1990s; a time of heightened concern over young “superpredators,” a concern based more in myth and fear than reality. In fact, no child has been sentenced to life without parole in Washington since 2004. Juries, judges and prosecutors across the state have shown their disfavor for life without parole sentences by refusing to impose them on children.
The public is making it clear that it does not support life sentences for children. Only 6 percent of Washington citizens polled in a recent public opinion survey said that children who commit murder should never be paroled. By contrast, 84 percent believe that such children should be allowed parole after 25 years. The public recognizes that we must treat children differently. It is time the legislature follows suit.
The legislature must weigh public safety, accountability and justice in passing new legislation. Ending life sentences for children and ensuring that all children are treated as children in sentencing properly balances these important values.
About the authors
Rep. Mary Helen Roberts has lived in the 21st District for thirty years and was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2004. Mary Helen has been active in county politics and various organizations such as the United Way.
Rev. Paul Benz, Co-Director of Faith Action Network, is an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He served as director of the Lutheran Public Policy Office of Washington previous to his role at Faith Action Network. Paul has been involved in the Concerned Lifers Organization at the Monroe state prison for the past twelve years.
Sr. Sharon Park is the Executive Director of the Washington State Catholic Conference (WSCC) which represents the Catholic Bishops of Washington State on issues of public policy.