Juvenile crimes & jail time – part 1
Making mistakes is a part of growing up. For most of us, the consequences of our youthful transgressions amount to little more than a scolding from parents, perhaps an apology or some community-minded labor, and a lesson well learned. Yet, for hundreds of inmates in America’s penal system accused of juvenile crimes and adult crimes as juveniles, mistakes made as juveniles may define their entire adult lives. According to Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch, the United States is the only country in the world that regularly sentences juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole. True, the sentence is reserved for only the gravest of juvenile offenses. But, even for the worst crimes, is it prudent policy to ignore the problems in the sentencing system as well as the bodies of evidence suggesting that criminals who committed their offenses when under the age of 18 have huge potential to change? Across the United States, over 2500 individuals are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. Pennsylvania has imprisoned more juvenile offenders for life than any other state in America: with no hope of reprieve, over 440 such inmates await the slow march of time in Pennsylvania. Michigan comes in a distant second, at 376. In total, 39 states have laws that make life without parole the punishment for murder, even for juveniles. However, ten states put the minimum age for life without parole at 12, and many more put it at 13 or 14. Just 18 states have actually imposed sentences of life without parole on offenders 14 or younger. According to a new report released in conjunction with the advocacy groups Chance 4 Youth and the American Civil Liberties Union, a disturbing level of justice-system dysfunction is unique in the context of youths sentenced for life. One major issue is racial disparities: according to the report, black youths account for 28% of juvenile arrests nationwide, but account for 35% of juvenile defendants who are waived to adult court. In addition, juveniles accused of killing white victims were found to be 22% more likely to receive plea offers compared to those charged with killing black victims. In some geographic areas, the problem is even more pronounced: for instance, in Michigan, 73% of those serving life sentences for juvenile crimes are racial minorities, even though minority youths represent only 29% of the state’s juvenile population. Another problem is access to justice. The report found that in Michigan, 38% of the attorneys representing youths sentenced to life without parole had been publicly sanctioned or disciplined for “egregious violations of ethical conduct.” For other lawyers, the rate of sanction was a mere five percent. Juveniles were found to reject plea offers at a much higher rate than adults as well, partially a function of their own inexperience and inability to recognize the value of a plea deal, but perhaps also due to subpar legal counsel: juveniles represented by attorneys who had not been disciplined were 43 percent more likely to accept favorable plea bargains for less serious crimes than those represented by lawyers who had been disciplined. “Juveniles are getting sentenced more harshly than adults because of their inability to negotiate the adult criminal justice system,” Deborah LaBelle, human rights advocate and principle author of the study, told The Huffington Post.