Juvenile offenders who are sentenced to life in prison are subjected to harsher treatment than their adult counterparts, according to multiple sources. Experts say the blame lies with immaturity on the youngsters’ part and an inability to effectively navigate the justice system. For instance, juvenile offenders are more likely to reject plea deals.
According to Deborah LaBelle, author of a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, they reject the deals because of “immaturity, inexperience and failure to realize the value of a plea deal.” According to the ACLU report, 74 percent of youths who committed homicide were offered a plea deal with some having the opportunity to serve as little as two years.
Racial disparities were present in the data as well. According to the ACLU report, children of color made up 73 percent of youth serving time in Michigan and nationwide; black youth represent just 28 percent of arrests but make up 35 percent of those who have their charges waived to adult court. Juvenile offenders are also less likely to receive plea deals if their victim is white. Another report by the Sentencing Project showed “high rates of socioeconomic disadvantage, extreme racial disparities in the imposition of these punishments, sentences frequently imposed without judicial discretion, and counterproductive corrections policies that thwart efforts at rehabilitation.”
The report also highlighted other issues that might lead a child to a life behind bars. Abuse was a major factor with 79 percent of youth surveyed saying they witness violence in their homes and 77 percent of female youth surveyed saying they were sexually abused. Educational issues were another fact. Two in five of those surveyed had been in special education classes and 84 percent of them had been expelled some time during their academic career.
Ashley Nellis, a researcher at the Sentencing Project, hopes this information will lead to reform. “There is just so much wrong with the original idea of putting youth in the adult system that we didn’t think through as a society,” said Nellis to the Huffington Post. “Now we’re coming to see how many injustices there really are [in] the way we are sentencing youth from the very start.”