06/26/2012

A Positive Step: Banning Life Without Parole Sentences for Kids

It took an opinion from the United States Supreme Court, but this week our nation officially recognized the obvious – children are fundamentally different from adults and our criminal justice system should not lock them up and throw away the key.

The court’s opinion banning mandatory life-without-parole sentences for youth offenders is a significant step for a country that incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation. For many, the pathway to prison begins in childhood. And too often, vulnerable children are held to the same standards and punished in the same way as adults.

Every day in America, 7,500 children on average are incarcerated in adult jails. While some states give prosecutors wide discretion to decide when a child should be treated as an adult, research shows that human brain development is not complete until we reach our twenties.

As a result, children do not have the same abilities as adults to make responsible decisions in complex situations or to understand the long-term consequences of their actions. But most important, children are by definition capable of change, and they should be given an opportunity to do so.

We all suffer when we give up on them.

Americans recognize that children are works in progress, but this belief isn’t always evident in our judicial system. The court’s opinion addresses the disconnect between what we know about children and a judicial practice that has cut their futures short.

But we still much have work to do.

At the Southern Poverty Law Center, we encounter children who have made terrible mistakes at a young age. Sadly, many of them are thrown into adult jails and prisons, where they receive substandard educational and rehabilitative services, are exposed to violence, and are denied the tools they need to learn from their mistakes.

Children do not belong in jail. They are better served by programs in their community, which are designed to address their unique needs. These programs aim to teach positive skills, support appropriate social behavior, and address behaviors like substance abuse and delinquency. Children should be placed in programs that address the root of the problem. They should not be warehoused in adult jails and prisons.

We cannot give up on children when we never gave them the tools to change their lives.