When I volunteered at Abraxas Youth Center in Franklin County years ago, I heard heart-wrenching stories from the young people there.
Some talked about how their parents used them as drug mules, forcing them to transport contraband with the expectation that, as children, they would face lighter penalties if caught. Many children felt torn because they loved their parents but didn’t want to return to abusive, drug-addicted lifestyles after they left detention. One young man said he was scared to death of being being caught one more time because he would be sent to adult prison for a minimum of 25 years for his “third strike.”
Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to life in prison without parole for nonhomicide crimes. And three years ago today, the court held that it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment to impose automatic sentences of life without parole on someone younger than 18 at the time of a crime.
Still, too many of our young people are being held in prison until they die.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Miller v. Alabama, Pennsylvania had sentenced nearly 500 children to life in prison without the possibility of parole — more than anywhere else in the world. The Legislature passed a law giving judges the option of keeping these sentences in place. That’s backed up by a state Supreme Court ruling that the Miller decision does not apply retroactively. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a challenge to a similar policy in Louisiana during its October term.
By Jean Bickmire 6/25/15