16-Year Old Got Life Without Parole for Killing Her Abusive Pimp -- Should Teens Be Condemned to Die in Jail?
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"There is this tendency to point the finger towards the younger co-defendant, sometimes because of the perception that the younger person will get a lesser sentence," says Alison Parker. "There's still this perception out there that kids will be treated differently, but the reality is that kids are treated like adults."
Another major factor is race. During Sullivan's trial, "the prosecutor and witnesses made repeated, unnecessary reference to the fact that Joe is African American and the victim (was) white," according to EJI. "One witness repeatedly said the perpetrator of the assault was a 'colored boy' or 'a dark colored boy.' "
It is not news that the American criminal justice system disproportionately targets people of color. But when it comes to juvenile offenders, Alison Parker calls the disparities "absolutely shocking." On a national level, "African American youth are serving the sentence at a rate of about 10 times that of white youth," Parker told AlterNet. "In some states, the rate is even higher."
In both cases before the Supreme Court, the defendants were sentenced to life for crimes that fell short of murder, a phenomenon that is especially prevalent In Florida, where the number of prisoners who will die in jail for non-homicide crimes hovers at 77.
Terrance Jamar Graham, the defendant in Graham v. Florida, was 17 years old and on probation for a crime he committed when he was 16, when he took part in an armed burglary. His co-defendants got minor sentences. He was slapped with life without parole.
"Mr. Graham, as I look back on your case, yours is really candidly a sad situation," the judge told him. "The only thing that I can rationalize is that you decided that this is how you were going to lead your life and there is nothing that we can do for you."
This is classic "three strikes" logic, which, along with the conspiracy and felony murder statutes have led teens to be sentenced to life for crimes in which they played only a minor role.
Take Christine Lockhart, the first female juvenile to be sentenced to life without parole in Iowa. She was 17 years old and sitting in a car when her boyfriend killed someone during an armed robbery. Today, she has been in prison for more than half her life.
Lockhart, along with Sara Kruzan are a relative minority, two out of some 175 women serving life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers. But their stories reveal how young people can get caught up in dangerous, harmful, and ultimately deadly, situations often simply by being with the wrong people at the wrong time.
"Sara's story is compelling," says Parker. "But it is really one that is shared across the country. There are many, many people with similar circumstances who are serving life sentences without any possibility of parole."
Kruzan, in fact, is one of the lucky ones. She now has attorneys who are working on appealing her sentence, pro bono. Most other prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles have no post-conviction representation at all.
Today, Kruzan is 32 years old and described as a "model inmate," despite any real lack of incentive. ("Who wants to excel in prison?" she says.) Asked what she would say if she had a chance to appear before a a parole board, she says that she believes she can now be of some value to society, perhaps even a "positive example."
Also, she says, "I've learned what moral scruples are."