Beyond Arrests: Re-Thinking Systematic Oppression

Locked In: Juveniles Serving Life in Prison

April 9, 2017

Locked In: Juveniles Serving Life in Prison

By: Nia Kaudo, Cary Holley, and Naeche Vincent

Children are rarely held to the same standards as adults. Our criminal justice system, however, is an exception to this principle. As of 2017, many states still allow juvenile life sentences. Not only is this upsetting from a moral standpoint, but it is also unconstitutional. In the Supreme Court case Miller v. Alabama in 2012, the court ruled that sentencing a child to life without parole violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. [1] In a subsequent case in 2016, the court furthered this precedent by ruling that the Miller v. Alabama ruling should apply to cases in which juveniles had already been sentenced as well. [2] Furthermore, as if there wasn’t already enough injustice, juvenile life sentences are significantly more likely to be imposed upon black juveniles than white juveniles. [3]

Pennsylvania is no exception to the problem. In fact, Philadelphia is regarded as “ground zero” because there are currently over 300 juvenile lifers from the city (out of the 500 in the entire state). This is about 10% of all lifers in the United States. [4] Luckily, on April 4th of this year 79 of these inmates were resentenced. [2] However, as the previously stated numbers show, 79 is nowhere near substantial in the grand scheme of things.

In response to Pennsylvania’s current act of prosecuting juveniles as adults, an organization known as The Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project (YSRP) was created in June of 2014. This non-profit organization is made up of a group of individuals who reach out and assist both children currently being prosecuted as adults as well as individuals who were sentenced to life without parole as children. They believe that no person should be defined by their worst action for the rest of their life and work to better the situations of the individuals caught in the system.

YSRP has four main goals in their work. First, they work to ensure that lawyers with low-income clients can have their cases prosecuted in juvenile court which would result in more favorable sentences. In terms of juvenile lifers, they offer mitigation to prepare them for resentencing.  YSRP also offers juvenile lifers community resources and programs that prove benefits such as healthcare and education. The third goal of the organization is to train the various areas of the criminal justice system, such as judges and lawyers, in advocacy to ensure representation for the youth in the adult system and the juvenile lifers with parole hearings. YSRP’s last goal is in terms of policy reform. Through their hard work and dedication, these juveniles and juvenile lifers as well, are receiving the help they need in their situations.

Upon learning of the issue of juveniles serving life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole, most citizens can easily rely on prevailing stereotypes associated with specific charges to justify the sentence, thereby relieving themselves of the larger implications of the issue.

Instead of seeing an American child whose brain is not even fully developed the public chooses to exclusively see the crime in order to validate the time. However, there is no validity in a just society’s decision to sentence its juvenile citizens to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Justifying the removal of a child from society for the rest of their natural existence before allowing them the chance to truly understand the laws and fabrics of the land, is fundamentally impossible.

On the backside of this article you will find the remarks of Gerald, a juvenile lifer serving out his sentence in a Pennsylvania Correctional Institution, who agreed to participate in a phone interview to raise awareness of the inhumanity that is intrinsic in this policy.

What was that moment like when you got sentenced as a juvenile to life?

Well when I got sentenced, I was basically—I was the only one that really that was in there. I got mine in ‘78 so —well ‘79—I got locked up in ’78, but I got sentenced September the 18th in ‘79. So, I was just like…uh…I was just messed up. You know? They said first degree murder and you know it went from—cause really they—I got a first-degree murder and I didn’t even kill nobody. All I did was dispose of the weapon. And I was the only person who got charged for it you know? I was the only person that they got, so that’s what really made it messed up too.

Have you been able to maintain the strength, hopefulness, and peace of mind thus far in your sentence and if so how?

Well the first couple of years I was just running around acting crazy, but then it was an older guy that uh—he knew the rest of my family and he kind of sat down with me, and um he talked to me and told me “Hey man, look man you got to keep on fighting on your case man, you got to start doing positive things in the jail.” So, I think the first thing I started off, I went and got my high school diploma, GED, I went and got my GED. From there I just did all kinds of stuff and was positive, you know what I mean? To keep myself on the right track. So, you know I just did that and tried to do my law work at the same time, you know? Tried to get help, you know, from people that was in the jail that try to help and that’s how I did it. That’s how I survived it all these years.

What do you hope to see happen for current lifers who were sentenced as juveniles if LWOP for juveniles is dissolved in Pennsylvania?

I think they should be given an opportunity. Any man that’s been locked up he’s been doing a long time, because you know we have not really been given the opportunity to even go up to the parole board to show that we have changed from what we used to be, you know what I mean? The destructive mind we had back then is not that way no more, you know what I mean? We’ve matured more. We were just children at that time, but now that you know we are mature men there’s no need to really keep us locked up in jail. It’s not serving no purpose. It’s just punishment right now that’s all you’re doing.

Why do you think it’s important to get rid of LWOP for juveniles based on your own experience and its overall ineffectiveness?

Because it’s not serving no purpose. It’s not giving the person the opportunity to show that he can change, you know, that he can be corrected of whatever he had did to get himself in the situation in prison any way. You know? You not giving them the opportunity to show that he can be a better person, or that he has changed. You’re not giving him that. You’re just saying, “Oh I’m going to give him life” so that’s it, so he’s done.