Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sentencing Teenagers to Life

The numbers are staggering. Juveniles under the age of 18 now account for 2% of adult prison admissions annually. In real numbers, roughly 12,000 teens convicted and sentenced "as adults" go to adult institutions every year, and nearly 10,000 juveniles are serving "life sentences." Of those, 73 are serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were 13 or 14 years old. And though they are usually segregated away from the adult population, these teens are exposed to the every day social milieu of adult prison.

As the story notes, last "December, the United Nations took up a resolution calling for the abolition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children and young teenagers. The vote was 185 to 1, with the United States the lone dissenter." While the rest of the world has seemingly moved away from sentencing juveniles to life terms, the U.S. stands alone in its practice, essentially chalking it up to the individual states for such a ignominious distinction.

"From the central role played by juries in civil cases to the election of judges to punitive damages to the disproportionate number of people in prison, the United States is an island in the sea of international law. Corrections professionals and criminologists here and abroad tend to agree that violent crime is usually a young person’s activity, suggesting that eventual parole could be considered in most cases.

"But the American legal system is more responsive to popular concerns about crime and attitudes about punishment, while justice systems abroad tend to be administered by career civil servants rather than elected legislators, prosecutors and judges."

In other words, we continue to use crime and punishment as political capital, which keeps the administration of justice out of the hands of professionals and in the hands of elected politicians.

Clearly, some teenagers are violent and commit crimes of a heinous nature. "Prosecutors and victims’ rights groups say there are crimes so terrible and people so dangerous that only life sentences without the possibility of release are a fit moral and practical response."

Yet, while that may be true, the short-sightedness of the "get tough" approach regarding recidivism has been shown time and again in penological and criminological research. By locking up these "dangerous teens" in an adult prison world, which only perpetuates anger and violence as a norm, are we really surprised by the notion that if they are paroled, they may come out meaner and more vicious than they went in, and in fact commit more crimes as a result?

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