The potential for life beyond bars should consider the negative socioeconomic and environmental circumstances and the impacts on the childhood of the 2,496 juveniles serving life-without-parole sentences.
Last month the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by the narrowest margin, 5-4, that juveniles convicted of homicide and given life sentences must be allowed the opportunity for parole. In 2010, the Court ruled that life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses was cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore a violation of the 8th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Prior to this change, the U.S. was the only country in the world to banish their youth to prison with no chance of release except death.
The American Civil Liberties Union says 2,496 people across the country are serving life without parole for juvenile crimes, 1,727 of them in five states:
- Pennsylvania 475,
- Michigan 358,
- Florida 355,
- California 301 and
- Louisiana 238.
In Michigan, about two-thirds are African-American and 45 percent were 16 or younger. 41 percent are from the Detroit area. Read more here.
In Pennsylvania in the 1990s and before, judges could only treat juveniles guilty of murder in two ways: juvenile detention until the age of 21 and then released into the public or go into prison for life without parole. As a judge during a time of high racial tension, would he think it socially acceptable to allow a murderer, juvenile or not, back into the public after a few years in a detention facility? With such a minor discipline for murder, the extreme may have seemed like the safer and surer option.
The Sentencing Project has a report on some additional statistics about the lives of juvenile lifers without parole before they committed their crimes. A third of the 1,000 surveyed lived in public housing; many others reported being homeless. Black juvenile defendants in for killing a white person were twice as likely to be sentenced to life without parole, while white defendants convicted of killing a black person were half as likely to receive the same sentence. Pennsylvania is the worst for its 315/450, African-American to total juvenile lifer ratio.
Even more stats show how life presented itself to them. 79 percent of the lifers were exposed to reoccurring domestic violence and 54 percent to weekly neighborhood violence. Such violence entails plenty of physical abuse, possibly killing, and significant social and economic deprivations. Nearly half of all, and almost 80 percent of females, experienced physical abuse.
Female juvenile lifers especially revealed that 77.3 percent had histories of sexual abuse, and 20 percent were victims of sexual abuse.
But these are children. Bryan Stevenson, executive director for the Equal Justice Initiative, suggests that the extreme potential for change from teenage years to adulthood should be considered to give judges more leeway in determining their sentences.
Academic challenges that went unaddressed also seemed common amongst these lifers. The largest figure in the study: 84.4 percent were at one time suspended or expelled from school. During the time of their offenses, just under half were even attending school.
Tyrone Jones is just one of these lifers rightfully petitioning court not for a second chance at life but a chance at life. Although his situation is different in that he has a claim of innocence, thousands will likely soon follow his footsteps.
Jones has served almost 40 years for a first-degree murder that occurred when he was 16. Aside from his application for release, he has Pennsylvania Innocence Project Legal Director Marissa Bluestine on his side. Bluestine contends that Jones should not have been in prison in the first place. First, the gun he was in possession of did not match the bullet that killed the man he was convicted for killing.
Since the law has changed, it is only obligatory for these convicts to apply for parole and be released. Jones is likely the first of this group to apply for release. Bluestine is filing the petition on his behalf.