Some Juveniles Still Serving Life Sentences After Supreme Court Ruled Them Unconstitutional
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The U.S. leads the world in incarcerating the most people — as a percentage of its population and in absolute numbers, too. It also leads the world in doling out the harshest sentences to youth.
Nowhere else in the world are youth offenders sentenced to life without the possibility of parole sentences — which literally means dying in prison. But here in the U.S., more than 2,500 prisoners serving life without parole sentences were under the age of 18 when the crime they are supposed to have committed occurred. Some were as young as 14 years old.
Before the 1970s, life without parole sentences for juveniles were unheard of, but that was before the "war on drugs" began and tough-on-crime rhetoric really took hold. Politicians found it helped their electability to strike a "law and order" pose by advocating harsh punishments like the death penalty and longer prison sentences. This was part of an elite counter-attack following the successes of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
By the early 1990s, one state after another was passing "three strikes and you're out" laws — requiring at least 20 years to life imprisonment for a third felony conviction. This was one in a wave of mandatory sentencing laws that spread across the country.
Unprecedented numbers of people went to prison, and for longer than ever before. Mandatory minimum sentences made simple possession of marijuana a crime punishable by 20, 30 and 40 years in prison. Youth as young as 13 and 14 could be tried as adults and sent to adult prisons, sometimes for the rest of their lives. As a consequence of these and other policy changes, the U.S. prison population grew astronomically — from 300,000 in the early 1970s to 2.3 million today.
It was difficult pushing back against these sentences, but there was progress. Illinois led the way in 2000 when then-Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on use of the death penalty — he eventually cleared death row with a mass commutation of death sentences before he left office.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished capital punishment for juvenile offenders. It took another five years for the Court to abolish life without parole sentences given to youth for crimes outside of murder. Of the 79 people given this sentence for a crime where no one was killed, every single one was Black — though that, of course, is not surprising given the racist nature of the criminal justice system.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to give mandatory life without parole sentences to offenders younger than 18. Regrettably, this isn't a ban on the sentence entirely. Judges and jurors can still impose it — but at least it's no longer possible for states or the federal government to require mandatory life without the possibility of parole sentences for juvenile offenders, where mitigating circumstances can't be taken into account.
Instead, judges and juries are now supposed to consider the circumstances surrounding any crime, including the age of the individuals convicted of committing it, their background and their capacity to change.
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If any judge had been allowed to take these matters consideration, Adolfo Davis would probably not be behind bars right now.
Davis sits inside an Illinois prison today at age 37. He has spent almost two-thirds of his life there, having gone to jail at age 14.
Davis grew up on the South Side of Chicago. His mother was addicted to drugs, and his father wasn't present. His grandmother, who he spent most of his time with, suffered from serious health problems.