April 10, 2017

Juveniles and life without parole

More US states are implementing legislation to enforce the ban on sentencing minors to life in prison without parole.

Minors locked up for life in prison with no possibility of parole. In 2012 the US Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences are unconstitutional. But some states are still handing down this punishment to people under the age of 18. 

There are currently around 2,500 people serving life in prison without parole across the US for serious crimes committed as juveniles, something fair sentencing advocates say is cruel and unusual punishment.

In the documentary “They Call Us Monsters”, filmmaker Benjamin Lear tells the story of four teens facing life terms for murder or attempted murder charges. It looks at whether they should spend the rest of their lives in prison for crimes committed in their youth.

Can people called “psychopaths” for committing crimes as minors change as adults? The US Supreme Court thinks there is chance they could. Informed by studies on the adolescent brain, a 2005 Supreme Court ruling eliminated the use of capital punishment of juveniles. And in 2012, the court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines, or cruel and unusual punishment.

Studies supporting these judgements conclude the brain of a young person is different than that of an adult. The research found adolescents can lack impulse control and be more susceptible to negative influences because their brains are still developing, and that development continues from the teen years into the mid-20s. In March, the US state of Arkansas became the 18th state, including the District of Columbia, to pass legislation to comply with the Supreme Court's 2012 ruling. And more states are looking to do the same.

Opponents of these moves say the kind of legislation being passed forgets and dismisses the victims and survivors. They say they also fear that courts could potentially release an individual who has a high risk of offending again.  

In this episode of The Stream, we will be joined by filmmaker Benjamin Lear, a former juvenile lifer, a victim advocate and a fair sentencing advocate to explore the act of second chances.

In this epsiode of The Stream, we speak with:

Jody Kent Lavy @jkentlavy
Executive Director, The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth

Benjamin Lear @benjaminlear
Director and Producer, "They Call Us Monsters"

Arturo ‘Art’ Gonzales @AntiRecidivism
Former Juvenile Lifer

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins @VctmsTeenKillrs
Victim Advocate, The National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murders

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.