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Will the Supreme Court Toss Life Without Parole for Juveniles?

The Supreme Court will decide whether a juvenile should go to prison for life, weighing which is worth more -- a child or his/her first crime?

The following article first appeared on the Web site of The Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for its e-mail newsletters here.  

“A throwaway person.” That’s how Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg characterized the societal status of a 14-year-old who is sentenced to life without parole, as oral arguments in Jackson v. Hobbswound down on Tuesday. She was responding to the claim by Little Rock Assistant Attorney General Kent Holt, representing the Arkansas Department of Corrections, that condemning a teenager to die in prison for murder “reinforces the sanctity of human life.”

“You say the sanctity of human life,” Ginsburg pushed back, “but you’re dealing with a 14-year-old being sentenced to life in prison, so he will die in prison without any hope.” In other words, aren’t kids’ lives still worth something even when they’ve committed a grievous wrong?

This was the fundamental question before the Court as it heard arguments in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, which were argued back-to-back. Civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson believes they are; representing defendants in both cases, he stressed that teenagers are works in progress, and cannot possibly be judged in the same way as adults. Not only does science back this up—teenagers’ brains are still developing, particularly the parts that affect judgement and impulse—the Court itself has concluded the same thing in such cases as Roper v. Simmons, which struck down the death penalty for children under eighteen on Eighth Amendment grounds. “What this Court has said is that children are uniquely more than their worst act,” Stevenson argued.

Holt disagreed with Ginsberg that sentencing a teenager to life without parole necessarily robs them of “hope,” offering that the prisoner in question “has made efforts to obtain his GED” and “has taken anger management classes,” while saying nothing about how such things might meaningfully serve him when he has no chance of release—or even review by a parole board.

The prisoner in question is no longer a child. Sentenced in 2003, the now 26-year-old Kuntrell Jackson was convicted of felony murder and aggravated robbery for a 1999 crime that occurred when he was just 14. Now living in a maximum security prison in Tucker, Arkansas, Jackson did not pull the trigger that led to the victim’s death. Nor was there evidence that he planned for—or even anticipated—that a murder would occur. Rather, Jackson, his fourteen year-old cousin, and a 15-year-old friend, Derrick Shields, decided while hanging out in the Chickasaw Courts housing projects in the town of Blytheville, Arkansas, that they would rob a video store. Shields was carrying a sawed-off shotgun and killed store clerk Laurie Troup when she refused to give him the money in the cash register.

Jackson was tried as an adult and given life without parole, the same sentence given to Shields. Even if he did not plan for a murder to occur, the state concluded, the fact that Jackson knew Shields had a gun made him guilty of “reckless indifference” to human life. In Arkansas, as in several states, life without parole is a mandatory sentence for such felony murder cases. This meant that Jackson’s age, lack of maturity or potential for rehabilitation could not be considered, even if the judge had wanted to.

As with capital cases where  defendants are sentenced to death for an indirect role in a murder, some Americans might be surprised to learn that such a young teenager, indirectly involved in a homicide, could face so permanent a sentence. Indeed, the United States is virtually unique in the world in sentencing such children to die in prison, a fact that has much to do with states’ mandatory sentencing statutes and laws passed in the 1980s and ’90s allowing children to be tried as adults—a trend that was largely rooted in racist (and since discredited) rhetoric about juvenile “superpredators.” It is no coincidence that 70 percent of the prisoners serving life without parole sentences today for crimes committed at 13 or 14 are youth of color.