Only a Savagely Cruel System Sentences Youth to Life Without Parole
Revolution #328, January 27, 2014
Shimeek Gridine, was 14, his friend was only 12, when they tried to rob a man in Jacksonville, Florida in 2009. When Shimeek fired a shotgun, the man was hit but not seriously wounded. Shimeek was prosecuted as an adult and pleaded guilty to attempted murder and robbery—hoping he would get leniency because he was young and had no record of any violence. But the judge sentenced him to 70 years without parole. Now Shimeek cannot get out of prison until he turns 77, which is beyond the life expectancy for a Black man his age. Shimeek's grandmother, Wonona Graham said, "They sentenced him to death, that's how I see it."1
Quantel Lotts was 17 years old when he went to court, was tried as an adult and got the most severe sentence possible—life without parole. It didn't matter to the court that Lotts was only 14 years old when he and his step-brother were play-fighting with darts and a toy bow and arrow and then things escalated into a real fight where Lotts stabbed his step-brother. Lotts says he is a different person now, but he will never be able to make that argument to prison officials for a second chance. He will remain behind bars until he dies. "They locked me up and gave me life without," Lotts says. "It's like they killed all hope for the future. There's nothing left."2
On his 16th birthday Robert Holbrook agreed to serve as a lookout in a robbery he thought would be a simple drug deal but others involved ended up killing someone. He pled guilty to murder to avoid the death penalty. The judge convicted him of first-degree murder for aiding and abetting in the crime. Now he's serving a life-without-parole sentence in Pennsylvania.3
"Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without the possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age."
Article 37A of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, September 2, 1990.
America is the only country in the world to sentence youth to die in prison without any hope of release, and today about 2,500 people in the U.S. are serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed when they were juveniles.4 There are many more in prison who did crimes when they were under 18 years old, serving what amounts to life sentences—given 60- or 70-year sentences which guarantee they will die behind bars.
This completely cruel and unjust situation exists even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled to restrict mandatory life sentences for juveniles, arguing that children, even those convicted of murder, are less culpable than adults and in most cases deserve a chance to try and change.
Stop and think about just how barbaric it is that this system insists on taking children and trying them as adults and then locking up many of them—some as young as 14, or even younger—for the rest of their lives, telling them they have no chance of ever being with their families again, ever going to regular school, ever having a life outside of prison.
In two separate cases, in 2010 and 2012, the Supreme Court made very important rulings about juvenile sentencing based on testimony on the differences between youth and adults.
In 2010, in the case of Graham v. Florida, the court decided that because of their cognitive, behavioral, and emotional differences from adults, youth under 18 at the time of their crime who did not commit a homicide could not be sentenced to the harshest available sentence. The court forbade sentences of life without parole for juveniles not convicted of murder and said offenders must be offered a "meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation."
The case before the court was that of Terrance Graham, who had been sentenced to life for armed robberies. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion: "The state has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a non-homicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law."
Then in 2012, in the case of Miller v. Alabama the court found the mandatory sentencing of juveniles to life without parole to be a violation of the 8th Amendment (that bans cruel and unusual punishment) in that it did not allow for consideration of their age and other relevant factors. The Supreme Court said that courts must "take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison." This decision meant that in 26 states, the only sentence for juveniles convicted of murder is unconstitutional.
The court left it unclear, though, whether Miller can be applied to the 2,500 life without parole sentences already handed down to those convicted of crimes committed as a juvenile. Nor did this ruling deal at all with those prisoners who as juveniles were given sentences that amounted to life sentences.
How Did This Happen?
A record number of people are serving life without parole sentences in the U.S. for things they did when they were juveniles. But youth were not always treated with such routine barbaric cruelty in U.S. courts.
In 1899 the U.S. actually made a deliberate decision to accommodate the developmental differences between adolescents and adults. Juvenile courts were established—a separate system of justice for youth that recognized their differences in terms of culpability and maturity. For most of the first half of the 20th century, this was the dominant thinking behind how juveniles were treated in U.S. courts, with emphasis on rehabilitation. But this drastically changed and began to unravel starting in the 1960s.5
The concept and practice of the courts taking into account actual differences between adults and juveniles began to be steadily undermined. This was especially true during the 1980s and 1990s, during the "war on drugs"—with Black and Latino youth being demonized and criminalized by the courts, politicians, and media. Remember all the talk about "superpredators"? The popularization of phrases like "adult crime, adult time"?
The age of judicial transfer was lowered in many states, allowing the criminal prosecution of youth aged 14 and younger. The range of transferable offenses was expanded—meaning a longer list of crimes for which youth could be prosecuted as adults. But perhaps the most significant change was in the automatic transfer statutes. Under these statutes, many youths are automatically treated as adults when they are charged with crimes. By some estimates this has meant more than 250,000 youth having their cases transferred into the adult criminal system
In New York, for example, a law passed in 1962 mandates that 16-year-olds be treated as adults, and 40,000 adolescents a years are tried as adults in that state—most for nonviolent crimes like fare-beating in the subways, marijuana possession and shoplifting.7
All this has been part of dramatic rise of mass incarceration in the U.S. in the last few decades.
As I wrote in the article, "What Kind of System Sentences People to a 'Living Death'?" (Revolution, December 9, 2013), the widespread use of life without parole sentencing was actually uncommon in the U.S. before the 1970s. But then came the "war on drugs" and the explosion of mass incarceration. The number of prisoners in the U.S. went from 338,029 in 1970 (in federal and state prisons and local jails) to 2,266,832 in 2010—with the majority of prisoners being Black and Latino people. This is when there came about a tremendous rise in the handing down of life without parole sentences—for adults as well as for juveniles.
In addition to juveniles serving life without parole sentences, there are 49,000 adult prisoners with such sentences—with over 3,000 of these prisoners incarcerated for nonviolent drug and property crimes. These sentences are about vindictive punishment, not rehabilitation, with a complete disregard for people's humanity. Life without parole sentences—for adults and juveniles—are cruel and inhumane.
Generations of Black and Latino youth have been treated as criminals, automatic suspects to be stopped and frisked by the police for doing nothing. And when they end up in court African American youth are sentenced to life without parole as children at a per capita rate that is 10 times that of white youth.8
This is a system that blames Black and Latino youth for "making bad choices"—while it cannot offer them any jobs, decent housing, education or any kind of future other than becoming a killing machine for their military, being constantly hounded by the police or ending up in prison.
All this underscores what Carl Dix from the Revolutionary Communist Party has said about the stakes of the struggle against mass incarceration in the United States:
"This horrific racially targeted massive incarceration is a consequence of not having made revolution in the '60s. The revolutionary upheaval of that period rocked the ruling class back on its heels, but it didn't seize power from them. Having ridden those storms out, and conscious of the role the uprisings of Black people played in spearheading that and their potential for sparking future upheaval, the ruling class has moved to viciously suppress that potential before it can manifest itself—counter-insurgency before the insurgency.
"If things are allowed to continue on this trajectory, the reality of millions of the oppressed penned up in the ghettos and barrios without opportunity or hope will intensify. Going in and out of jail will remain a rite of passage for millions of oppressed youth, many of whom already look to their immediate future and can see nothing more than prison or death. This is slow genocide and, given the sharp divisions in the ruling class and the building up and unleashing of outright fascist forces, it could easily become fast genocide."
This System Has No Future For the Youth, But....
In addition to the 2,500 prisoners serving life without parole for juvenile crimes there are another 10,000 serving life sentences for crimes they were convicted of committing before they were 18. This is in line with the general trend in America where prisoners are serving the longest sentences in the country's history.
Only a savagely cruel system sentences youth to life without parole. Only a totally illegitimate system sends thousands of young people to prison for decades with no hope of ever changing and getting a second chance, of getting out and making a contribution to society. This is a system that labels Black and Latino youth "the worst of the worst" to be thrown away and treated as less than human, that has no regard for their human potential. This is a system that has no future for the these youth. But the revolution does have a place for these youth – fighting the power and transforming the people for revolution, a revolution to emancipate all of humanity.
As Bob Avakian says:
"No more generations of our youth, here and all around the world, whose life is over, whose fate has been sealed, who have been condemned to an early death or a life of misery and brutality, whom the system has destined for oppression and oblivion even before they are born. I say no more of that."—BAsics 1:13