A century ago, the US recognised the injustice of life sentences for juveniles. Now, it is unique in the world for refusing to do so
When Robert Holbrook was 16 years old, he acted as a lookout in a drug deal in which a young woman was killed. Robert was not what's known as the "trigger man", and, according to his own testimony at least, he did not witness the murder occurring. But because he took part in a felony that resulted in murder, he was automatically culpable under the felony murder rule. He was convicted, along with his co-defendants, of murder in the first degree, which carries an automatic sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) in the state of Pennsylvania.
So, at 16, Robert joined the growing ranks of American children sentenced to die in prison.
Sentencing juveniles to life without parole (JLWOP) is one of the many areas of criminal justice in which the United States sets itself apart from the rest of the world. No other country allows for the imposition of life sentences without the possibility of parole for child offenders.
Of the approximately 2,500 JLWOP sentences in the United States, around 400 or so were awarded in Pennsylvania, which is what is known in juvenile sentencing terms as a "double mandatory" state: juveniles involved in a homicide are automatically transferred to adult court and tried as adults ("adult crime, adult time") and both first- and second-degree murder convictions carry mandatory LWOP sentences.
In Robert's case, even though the judge alluded to his young age and pointed out that he was the least culpable of all the defendants, there was no opportunity anywhere in the process to exercise judicial discretion. According to Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which just released a comprehensive study on the lives of juvenile lifers (pdf):
"When you impose mandatory sentences on broad categories of offenders, you're inevitably going to draw people into those broad categories, who do not belong."
Over 100 years ago, the juvenile justice system was established in the United States to prevent children being caught up in an adult net. The court recognized that the adolescent brain is not fully matured (pdf), leaving teenagers less risk-averse, less able to weigh consequences and, possibly, less culpable. That separate system of justice has now been more or less dismantled, with devastating consequences.
Though tried as an adult, Robert was housed, along with other youths charged with crimes, in a juvenile facility while he awaited sentencing. He recounts them all watching each other drop like flies into the lifer bin ? and being completely unable to comprehend what this meant.
"Many of us, after being sentenced to LWOP, couldn't comprehend the experience and only years later understood what a life sentence implies. Life. We hadn't even lived ? so how could we comprehend life?
"More often than not, the courts' sentence of life landed on our ears with a dull thud and numbing silence as our young minds tried in vain to make sense of the words and the totality of the sentence. We couldn't look that far ahead into a future because we had no extensive reference for the past.
"Only after many of us have served 10 or 15 years in prison does the 'reality' of the sentence sink in. When you have more life experience to reference, when you are 26 years old, with 10 years of prison behind you, you start to recognize what imprisonment for the rest of your life implies."
Now at the age of 38, after serving 22 years of his eternal sentence, and facing the prospect of maybe 40 or 50 more, depending on how long it takes him to die, Robert, like his fellow juvenile lifers, is still grappling with that reality.
There may be some hope on the horizon, however. In the recent past, the US supreme court has made several decisions on the constitutionality of treating juvenile offenders as adults. In a landmark 2005 decision (Roper v Simmons), juveniles became the third category of defendants, along with the insane and mentally retarded, to be categorically excluded from the death penalty. Although it was implied that JLWOP sentences are an acceptable alternative, the decision involved broad statements about the reduced culpability of juvenile offenders. That would appear to leave open to debate ? and possible challenge ? whether LWOP is, in fact, a?humane?alternative. Four years later, in 2009, in the case of Graham v Florida, the supreme court barred the imposition of JLWOP sentences for non-homicide crimes.
The Graham decision left several questions unanswered, though. A key one was whether or not a "non-trigger man" accomplice to a murder can be charged with homicide, at least in cases where there was no intent to kill, or no knowledge that a murder was to take place. The supreme court is currently reviewing two additional cases, Miller v Alabama and Jackson v Hobbs, both involving 14-year-old defendants convicted of murder and given LWOP sentences.
In one of the cases, Jackson (like Robert Holbrook) was a non-trigger man accomplice. Whatever decision the supreme court reaches will likely only apply to juveniles aged 14 or younger, yet sentencing reform advocates have welcomed this latest opportunity to review the constitutionality of sentencing children to die in prison. A verdict is expected later this month.
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