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Free the Kids

Free the Kids

By Anne Miller

Students line up near their bunks in a dormitory at the West Texas State School.
SourceMichael Ainsworth/Corbis


Because when you’re still in your teen years, should your ”permanent record” be that permanent?

By Anne Miller

Here are three nations you wouldn’t often see lined up next to each other: Somalia, South Sudan and the United States. 

What do they share? These are the nations that don’t abide by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which, among other things, bars juveniles under age 18 from serving time in adult facilities — and bars them from serving sentences that amount to life behind bars. 

More than 2,500 prisoners currently serve lifetime sentences (either life or life without parole) for crimes they were tried for when they were younger than 18 years old. That’s a drop in the bucket compared with the 6,937,600 serving time under state and federal watch in 2012, the last year the Bureau of Justice Statistics tallied. But for many (see: the United Nations), the kids in with the adults exemplify so much that’s perceived as wrong with the American justice system. 

A teenager sentenced to life without parole costs taxpayers approximately $2 million.

It’s been this way in the U.S. for half a century: Sentencing juveniles like adults began in the 1960s, according to Ashley Nellis, a senior research analyst with the Sentencing Project. Such sentencings peaked in the 1990s, after states codified laws allowing juvenile case transfers, says Nellis, whose organization advocates for sentencing reform.


If a juvenile landed up in an adult court — because of the seriousness of the crime, overcrowded courts, or state mandates that required certain cases or juveniles of certain ages appear in grownup court — judges had little legal leeway to treat a 17-year-old differently from a 30-year-old. 

The arguments pile up against life in prison: there’s human rights, there’s the international comparison, and then there’s the tax arguments – a teenager sentenced to life without parole costs taxpayers approximately $2 million, Nellis says. 

My children are now sentenced to life fighting that possible parole.

— Haynes Shimek

But not everyone thinks life behind bars is a bad idea. Some victim’s advocates say murder is murder: A 15-year-old knows full well it’s wrong to kill another human being, and should be held responsible. 

Victims of a crime sometimes give “victim impact statements” during court sentencings. In December, Laura Haynes Shimek gave a statement to the court during the resentencing hearing of the woman who killed her mother 20 years ago. At the time of the attack, the murderer was 14. She originally faced life without parole, but was resentenced last year. “My children are now sentenced to life fighting that possible parole,” wrote Haynes Shimek on the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers website.

Like plenty of what’s been writ in legalese, it’s not so easy to unravel what’s been passed by legislatures. Supreme Court cases in 2010 and 2012 both ruled against life without parole for juveniles. Changing laws, and changing social norms, mean fewer young people are sentenced to life these days.

States differ in applying the SCOTUS rulings. So best to train your eyes on the Nine, dear court watchers, in the near future (says Nellis). Cases are already winding their way through state courts: Just a few weeks ago, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that such offenders deserve resentencing hearings, while Michigan’s judiciary is weighing the question right now. 

But clarity on the federal level could take years neither the teenage murderers, nor their victims, want — for very different reasons.

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