If a Nation is Judged By How it Treats its Young Prisoners, America Fails Miserably

Last week, the Supreme Court shuttered its doors on one of its most controversial terms in the last century. Amid the flurry of dissention inducing decisions, was Miller v. Alabama, decided along with Jackson v.  Hobbs. The cases — deriving their namesakes from Evan Miller, convicted of capital murder, and Kuntrell Jackson, convicted of felony murder — describe two unsettling crimes committed by two profoundly disturbed boys, only 14. 

With its decision, the court prohibited mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for youth offenders. But Miller was released on the same day as the hotly anticipated Arizona v. United States. The court’s decision to red-line the majority of Arizona’s harsh immigration measure all but buried discussion of Miller’s implications.

Miller raises important considerations about the significance of criminal convictions for youths who are tried as adults. Recognizing that juveniles are inherently different from adults, states adjudicate most youth offenses in their juvenile justice system. There, juvenile courts recognize that because of their age, youths are less culpable for their crimes and more responsive to rehabilitation. The greater goal in this system is reform and reintegration, not punishment.

But in the late 1980’s into the 1990’s, an upswing in overall violent crime captured the national attention. Along with the media’s rapt fascination with several horrifying but isolated incidents of youth crime, policymakers chipped away at the practice of treating juvenile offenders differently from adult criminals. 

To combat public fears about a coming wave of so-called “super-predators,” a barrage of legislation took aim at the perceived epidemic of youth crime. This “tough on crime” movement found judges transferring youth offenders to adult criminal court with greater frequency — and not only for violent or gang-related offenses where transfer was common.

The shift helped transform the juvenile system into one that all too closely resembles the adult system. Only in recent years, has the Supreme Court begun to place limitations on certain cruel, if not unusual, sentences that youth offenders can receive.

Being adjudicated “delinquent” in juvenile court has significant consequences, but they are far less severe and stigmatizing than those facing a youth who has been convicted as an adult criminal. A criminal conviction is difficult to seal and carries with it, not only the potential for a harsher sentence and the increased harms of serving time in an adult correctional facility, but the specter of collateral consequences. 

Collateral consequences are civil punishments effected by states that are tied to criminal convictions. Though states vary in the application and breadth of collateral consequences, most keep probationers, parolees, and ex-offenders from civic participations, such as voting, jury service, and election for public office. They can also prevent those convicted of crimes from accessing public benefits, housing, health care, employment, child and family services, education loans, and engaging with community development initiatives.

In recent years, collateral consequences have weighed heavy on the criminal justice community. As highlighted in several studies and reports, they have significant social implications—the most serious, the issue of recidivism. For the many that push for criminal justice reform, collateral consequences’ long-term, detrimental effects are punishments beyond those befitting the crime.

But the issue is doubly complicated.

In 1984’s Strickland v. Washington, the Supreme Court encouraged state defense attorneys and judges to consider a conviction’s collateral consequences at sentencing. But outside of the possibility of deportation, doing so was not required. The significance of this is two-fold. Not only may adult offenders and youth tried as adults be unaware of the collateral consequences of a guilty plea or conviction, but a judge need not weigh the long-term effects of collateral consequences when handing down a sentence.

And so, the blind direct the blind.

With Miller, the Court created the possibility of parole for some youth offenders who have been guaranteed a life behind bars. Collateral consequences that used to be irrelevant or go unconsidered are now realities. While the potential for parole is certainly a welcome possibility for youth offenders, in many states, a life sentence without parole makes a prisoner less eligible for educational and rehabilitation programs. Consequently, these offenders face the stranglehold of collateral consequences, potentially, without the education or skills that might help prepare them for life outside prison walls.  

Social stigmas against probationers, parolees and ex-offenders already limit their opportunities after release, and make it more difficult for them to successfully reintegrate back into society. Added to the broad scope of collateral consequences’ effects, back home many—especially those who hope to use the education or skills they gained from rehabilitation services—find, not opportunity, but frustration and disappointment.

Though collateral consequences can be devastating for adult criminals, they are even more so for youths who have been tried and convicted as adults.

A youth offender has had little, if any, opportunity to access or engage with the aspects of life that collateral consequences take from adults. For youth offenders and criminal justice reformers, collateral consequences’ effects are not trivial matters, they are draconian. Opposition to their effects is not a mere want for something never had, they evidence the injustice of foreclosed opportunity.

States have the right to try and convict juveniles as adults, particularly after considering the severity of the offense at issue, and a youth’s criminal history and psychosocial disposition. But categorically, youths are not adults, and are exceptional in the adult criminal system. Regarding the attachment of collateral consequences to youth offenders who are eligible for probation, parole, or release, states must take more comprehensive measures to acknowledge this fact.

When Miller was argued, several of the justices made it a point to discuss the “deficits [of] childhood,” using them to draw lines between adult and youth offenders. The exercise was not in vain. And yet, the criminal justice system risks this futility if states draw these lines only to keep youth offenders in an impenetrable box of exclusion.

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Felicia A. Reid

Felicia focuses on civil liberties, racial and juvenile justice, and criminal justice reform. She is the editor-in-chief of thisthatSAID--an online magazine that offers critical commentary on contemporary issues from diverse perspectives. Felicia received her J.D., with a concentration in Social Change Advocacy, from New York Law School. In 2007, she received her B.A. in Comparative Literature from Fordham University, where she focused on postcolonial literature and social identity theory. She also has a certification in French Language and Civilization from Paris-Sorbonne University.

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