Sandy C. Freese
On April 22, 2021, the United States Supreme Court rejected restrictions on life without parole sentencing for juveniles. Judges no longer have to take into account the possibility of rehabilitation. If your a killer at the age of 12, will you be a killer at the age of 48? The District of Columbia and 25 states have banned life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for juveniles. While the other 25 states still carry this sentence, nine of them have no one serving it. The United States is the only country who allows its juveniles to receive sentences which ensure their deaths will be behind bars.
According to 2012 writing by Ashley Nellis PH. D. of The Sentencing Project, findings from a national survey of 1,579 juveniles serving life sentences exposed the following:
79% witnessed violence in their homes;
More than half witnessed weekly violence in the neighborhoods.
46.9% suffered physical abuse; including 79.5% of females.
77.3% of girls suffered sexual abuse, overall 20.5% reported having been sexual abused.
31.5% were raised in public housing.
17.9% reported not living with a close relative before incarceration. Some were homeless or in detention centers.
2 in 5 were enrolled in special education courses.
Fewer than half were attending school.
84.4% had been expelled from school at some point.
Judges are not required to take the past abuse of these children into consideration before sentencing. Nor are they required to consider that the rational part of the brain is not fully developed until at least the age of 25. Good judgement doesn't come naturally for any child, much less those who have no positive influencers in their lives.
Is prison helping juveniles? Let's look at the experience of Ismael "Izzy" Nazario. At the age of 13, Nazario's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. He watched as she became weak while enduring radiation and chemotherapy; he watched as her hair fell out. Over the next two years, Nazario's grades declined and he fell in with the wrong crowd. At the age of 15, he was charged with robbery and assault and was booked into New York Rikers Island Jail. One of his first experiences was a threat by another inmate who wanted his shoes. He spent 300 days overall in solitary confinement due to fights and once for having tobacco on this person. His time in solitary confinement was emotionally and socially scarring. He spent 23 hours a day in a box that smelled of breath and drool.
Rikers Island no longer holds juveniles in solitary confinement, and in 2016 Obama put a stop to juvenile solitary confinement in federal facilities. Unfortunately, most juveniles are incarcerated in state facilities.
Heather D'Aoust was struggling with serious mental health issues when she bludgeoned her mother to death at the age of 14. At the age of 16, she was sentenced to 16 to life in the California Penal System. I recently read an article written by D'Aoust for Prison Writers; you can find the link below. D'Aoust was completely unaware of how her life would change once she left juvenile hall. Within the first 20 minutes of her stay in juvenile authority, a group of Mexican gang members took a razor to her hair, sawing it off strand by strand.
In her article, D'Aoust discusses race issues in prison. The Mexicans, she points out, are all about killing. There are no fair fights as far as they are concerned, thus hiding shanks and HIV covered needles are typical weapons they bring to a fair fight. Whites consider themselves as superior and do not hesitate to wear wires or to call out to the c/o's when in trouble. Blacks, on the other hand, will watch for c/o's to allow you to deal with your business yourself. The Black inmates not only accepted her, but protected her. It went both ways; if there was a race war, D'Aoust was the first to defend her sisters.
Remember, D'Aoust was 14 when she lost her freedom and began to learn about gang affiliation and the brutality while in the system. She wasn't protected, but forced into a life that mirrored her crime and promotes further violence.
What of sexual assaults on juveniles during incarceration? Davossi Wisdom of Iowa began his rollercoaster of being in and out of juvenile facilities at the age of nine. In a 2020 article (link below), Wisdom spoke of PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act). For him and others in his pod, it was a joke as no one was being protected. Though he had no desire to perform sexually, after he was approached by a female staffer, he acquiesced. Why? It would make his time of incarceration easier to deal with than if he had refused. Wisdom went on to express that sexual coercion took place in every facility he served time in. The age of the juveniles was never seen as an issue.
In summary, what is society gaining from throwing away these children? Are they being rehabilitated? If they return to society, will they be prepared? Is it possible that the funding spent to keep them locked up would be better suited by being placed into our communities so that our children have a safe and positive atmosphere to spend their time? Would receiving much needed mental health care benefit our youth more than locking them into horrific facilities where they have no chance?