Even before the United States Supreme Court’s decision last week to declare juvenile life without parole to be unconstitutional, it was a well documented fact that America leads the world in sentencing youthful offenders to a lifetime behind bars.
But in the shadow of the landmark decision is the extreme racial disparity that exists in the sentencing of juveniles without the possibility of parole, according to a report by the Sentencing Project.
The study, The Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings from a National Survey, determined that along with the racial disparity was a tendency on the part of judges to impose sentences without judicial discretion, and the defendants were generally exposed to excessive levels of violence in their homes and communities, high levels of physical abuse, and significant social and economic deprivations.
According to the report, a third of the more than 1,000 defendants surveyed were raised in public housing, 18 percent were not living with a close adult relative before their incarceration and some reported being homeless. More than half witnessed weekly violence in their neighborhoods and less than half were attending school at the time of their arrest. More disturbing is the proportion of African Americans serving juvenile life without parole sentences for the killing of a white person: 43.4 percent. Conversely, white juvenile offenders with Black victims are only about half as likely to receive a sentence of life without parole.
“Racial disparities remain extremely pronounced in the Juvenile Justice system,” said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP in a press release. “African-American children are 10 times more likely than their white peers to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. We remain concerned that racial disparities will continue to be evident as courts exercise discretion in making this assessment. If past sentencing is any guide, this most severe sentence may remain all too common for children of color.”
The study showed that most of the sentences were imposed in states where the judges were faced with the obligation to sentence the defendants mandatorily and without consideration of their age or circumstances. In Pennsylvania, which leads the nation in juveniles serving life without parole, it is a legal requirement that youthful defendants of any age who are charged with homicide must be tried in an adult court and when convicted, sentenced without the possibility of parole.
Also, Sentencing Project research shows that of the 450 inmates in Pennsylvania who are serving juvenile life without parole, 315 are African-American.
Chief Justice Elena Kagan, in writing the majority decision last week, held that juvenile life without parole was cruel and unusual punishment. Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the dissenting opinion, said the ruling was not their decision to make.
In Pennsylvania, one inmate who was sentenced to life in 1973 has already filed a petition with the Court of Common Pleas for release based on the Supreme Court decision. Tyrone Jones, now 56, was arrested at age 16 for his connection to the murder of Henry “Country” Harrison. Jones fit the general description of the shooter and there were more than 30 people who witnessed the shooting. When Tyrone was arrested, he had a .25 caliber pistol in his waistband. During questioning, he told detectives he shot at the victim about four times, but Harrison was killed with a .22 caliber bullet. During further interrogation, Jones said that his friend Michael Long also had a gun. When Long was questioned by investigators, he admitted that he had a .22 caliber gun and that he also shot at the victim.
Neither Jones nor Long was ever identified by witnesses as having killed Harrison. Jones was convicted and sentenced to life based on his own statements, which did not match the facts.
“The large number of individuals sentenced to juvenile life without parole represents the dismantling of the founding principles of the juvenile justice system,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project in a press release. “These youth were failed by systems intended to protect children. Many juveniles sentenced to life without parole first suffer from extreme socioeconomic disadvantage, and are then sentenced to an extreme punishment deemed unacceptable in any other nation. Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, the cases behind the ruling involved Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson, both of whom were sentenced when they were 14 years old. Miller was convicted of killing a man in Alabama; Jackson was convicted of being an accomplice in a robbery that ended in murder in Arkansas.”