North Carolina juveniles convicted of first degree murder between the years of 1994 and 2012 had one option: life in prison without parole.
These mandatory life sentences were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2012 decision — calling for states to provide more than one sentencing option for future cases.
But until last week, inmates sentenced as juveniles during the 18-year period in the state were not considered. The Supreme Court case Montgomery v. Louisiana established these convicts have a constitutional right to challenge their sentences.
"Our office represents about 60 people in this situation," said Allison Standard, assistant director of post-litigation for North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services.
Standard said clients are hopeful they can work toward the possibility of parole.
But, parole is difficult to obtain in North Carolina, she said.
“Just by giving someone the sentence of life with parole does not guarantee these people are going to get parole ever,” Standard said. “I think we should really be saying life with parole eligiblity.”
Conflict over juvenile sentencing is nothing new, she said.
“But it is part of a general trend that shows a recognition that juveniles are different and should be treated differently than adults,” she said.
Differences between juvenile and adult systems
Jody Kent Lavy, director and national coordinator of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth — an organization that advocates for age-appropriate sentencing — said young people possess a unique capacity for change and rehabilitation.
“They’re better off in the juvenile criminal justice system where they have access to programing, to counseling, to programs that were established with their developmental stages in mind," she said. "As opposed to the adult justice system which ignores all of that and frankly does incredible harm."
The adult and juvenile defense systems have very different approaches, said Josh Rovner, a state advocacy associate at the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy think tank in Washington D.C.
“The adult system merely cares about what the adult did," he said. "An adult is considered fully accountable for their actions, whereas for a juvenile, there can easily be mitigating circumstances."
These factors can acknowledge the difficulty of a juvenile leaving a home situation that may be chaotic or abusive, Rovner said.
He said colleagues at the Sentencing Project have found certain links between juveniles sentenced to life and their environments at home.
“In surveying those juveniles who got life sentences, overwhelmingly those were people who came from violent homes who were abused themselves,” Rovner said.
Race and the "superpredator" theory
Treatment of juveniles as adults can be traced back to the "Superpredator" theory, conceived in the 1990s, Lavy said.
“It said that there were godless, fatherless, monsters, violent African American teenagers that were going to come to a neighborhood near you and commit violent crimes,” she said.
Rovner said the theory showed racist elements and made it easier for legislatures to charge children as adults.
“It was appealing for politicians to be able to blame this generation of kids and say they were somehow worse than any generation that had come before them,” he said.
But Rovner said the theory, which was created by a political scientist, was largely discredited by experts in the criminal defense field.
Lavy said she sees the destructive effects the theory had on sentencing.
“The concourse of those laws is what created this system that allows our children to be sentenced to die in prison,” she said.
Legacies of racism are evident even in the structure of our courts and juries, according to Tamar Birckhead, an associate professor of law and director of clinical programs at UNC School of Law.
"When you have a criminal justice system where people of color are being tried by all white juries that is problematic," she said. "Even today, that legacy is with us in the form of the challenge of not only finding jury pools that are diverse but the challenge of ensuring when lawyers pick juries they are not eliminating people of color for improper reason."
Need for criminal defense reform
Juvenile sentencing policies are one indicator of the ongoing issue of mass incarceration in the United States, said Chris Agoranos, a student at the Duke Divinity School pursuing a certificate in prisoner studies.
“Mass incarceration and mass criminalization is our country’s newest iteration of white supremacy and anti-black violence,” he said.
Agoranos said events like "Criminal (In)justice: Resistance Accountability and the Ecology of Reform" — hosted at Duke — provide a chance for dialogue.
Rovner said voters are looking for politicians who end the era of tough crime and mass incarceration for both economic and ideological reasons.
“It’s so costly to operate a prison system (while) locking up people who don’t need to be imprisoned. But also because it goes against the American ideals about second chances and redemption,” he said.
Birckhead said the most recent Supreme Court case is a positive step but we still have much more to overcome in juvenile sentencing and the overall criminal defense system.
"For the past fifty, sixty years, we have relied on locking up people for their natural lifetime rather than grappling with issues such as poverty, violence, mental illness, intellectual disabilities," she said.
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