Supreme Court Decision Offers Chance for Black Children in Prison

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Monday that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles aged 17 or younger is unconstitutional is relatively good news for black children.

While one can hardly find anything positive to say about black youth being incarcerated, the idea that they may one day be paroled recognizes the potential for change

Monday’s ruling affects mandatory life-without-parole sentences in 29 states for hundreds of offenders whose sentences did not consider age or other mitigating circumstances.

The Equal Justice Initiative documented 73 cases in which children aged 14 or younger had been essentially condemned to die in prison. Nearly all of those receiving life without parole sentences lacked legal representation and in most of these cases the propriety and constitutionality of their extreme sentences have never been reviewed.

“This is an important win for children. The Court took a significant step forward by recognizing the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that don’t allow sentencers to consider the unique status of children and their potential for change,” Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who represented the plaintiffs in the cases under appeal, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, said in a statement. “The Court has recognized that children need additional attention and protection in the criminal justice system.”

As a result of the ruling, Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, who were sentenced to life in prison without parole on murder convictions at 14, are now entitled to new sentencing hearings.

According to a report released in March by The Sentencing Project, 97 percent of those sentenced to Juvenile Life Without Parole sentences were male and 60 percent were black. Furthermore, black juveniles were nearly twice as likely as white juvenile offenders to be sentenced to life without parole for killing a white person than a black person, while white juvenile offenders were only half as likely to be sentenced to life without parole for killing black people.

The challenge now will be working to ensure that youths sentenced to substantial prison terms get the counseling, education and related services needed to ensure they can reintegrate into society as healthy young adults.

It is one thing to say someone who has spent years in the criminal justice system should be given a chance to show he can be a productive member of society. It is quite another to ensure the incarcerated are given a genuine opportunity to succeed.

The challenge in dealing with crime is to ensure there is some punishment meted out for offenses committed, while balancing the need for rehabilitation to reduce or prevent recidivism.

Jackie Jones, a veteran journalist and journalism educator, is director of Jones Coaching LLC, a career transformation firm.

 

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