Monday, June 18, 2012

Lock Them Up and Throw Away the Key, Is That Really the Solution?

On March 20, 2012, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the cases of Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama.  Both cases involve juveniles that were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes that were committed when they were fourteen years old.  These cases address whether the sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for a fourteen year old violates the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. While we wait for the Court to hand down its ruling, I wonder whether anyone else finds it disheartening that we put so much time and energy into the debate on how to punish a child after they have committed such a heinous act rather than focusing on how to save these children before they become entangled in our criminal justice system. 

Seventeen days after Kuntrell Jackson turned fourteen years old he was involved in the robbery of a local video store and the fatal shooting of the store clerk.  Kuntrell did not pull the trigger, however, he was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.  Evan Miller was just fourteen years old when he brutally beat his neighbor with a baseball bat and set his house on fire leaving his neighbor inside to die.  Evan was convicted of capital murder in the course of an arson and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller were both growing up in extreme poverty and in their short fourteen years of life they faced many struggles.  Kuntrell grew up in an impoverished and violent community and in a family where disobeying the law was the norm.  In just fourteen short years Kuntrell experienced abandonment from his father, abuse from his mother’s alcoholic boyfriend, and the incarceration of several family members, including his mother and brother. 

Evan Miller also had a very troubled childhood.  Evan’s father was an alcoholic and his mother was a drug addict.  Evan was the victim of severe physical abuse at the hands of his father.  Evan attempted suicide six times. The first suicide attempt occurred when Evan tried to hang himself at the age of five.  Evan began abusing drugs and alcohol at the age of eight and was finally removed from his parents’ custody at the age of ten.  Evan was returned to the custody of his drug-addicted mother a few years later.

These children committed heinous crimes and their crimes should not go unpunished.  However, in formulating a punishment for juveniles like Kuntrell and Evan we must address the issue of how these fourteen year old children became murderers.  Kuntrell and Evan’s attorneys’ have begun to address this issue through the arguments they raised against the imposition of life in prison without parole for fourteen year olds.  The arguments go further than pointing out that juveniles lack the maturity to make responsible choices making them more susceptible to peer-pressure and impulsive risk taking.  The arguments point out that children growing up in poverty have no control over the environments they live in and lack the resources to escape these detrimental environments. 

Children are not born criminals, they become criminals and there are several factors that play a key role in this outcome, such as the exposure to violence and crime, abuse and neglect, growing up without a father, extreme poverty, and the lack of nurturing, love, and guidance.  By turning our backs on children in their desperate times of need we are punishing them for the bad choices of their parents and we are creating juvenile delinquents. I think we can do better and I think we could have done better for Kuntrell and Evan.

Today we are having a debate over the lives of Kuntrell and Evan, a debate that we should have been having when Kuntrell was six and his mother was imprisoned for shooting a neighbor and when Evan was five and he tried to hang himself.  What are we saying to our youth with a sentence of life imprison without the possibility of parole for a fourteen year old?  We are saying that after just fourteen short years on this earth society gives up on you, there is no hope, and you can never change.  Is locking them up and throwing away the key really the solution? 

Tonya Davis
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief


  1. This is an excellent post Tonya!

    The stories of Kuntrell and Evan are very heartfelt to me. Society does need to wake up and realize that there are many children out there like Kuntrell and Evan, that are raised by their environments and the people that surround them, to know nothing more than violence, alcohol, and other illegal activities. It seems like the people who have always lived in a positive environment tend to ignore this issue like it doesn't exist.

    I do not believe that this issue will ever be completely solved. If it is possible, it would take generations. I do believe, however, that this issue could be minimized. I've done a lot of research on this topic and I had one very detailed solution in mind. My solution is to adjust the education system in these areas. The faculty and staff of these schools will have to step up if the parents won't. These schools can have a "program" where once a week, every kid in the school writes about their life. It is similar to what they did in the movie "Freedom Writers" except it will be on a bigger scale. It is easy to tell which children need guidance when you let them free write about life, goals, and whatever else they would like to include. At this point, the school should select those individuals that need guidance and recommend them to an after school program that's ran by mentors and guidance counselors.

    It would be really difficult to make something like that happen, and there's probably a better solution out there. Either way, it's a lot better than locking them up and throwing away the key. These kids need a chance.

    Again, excellent post Tonya! I hope to read many more.

  2. Thank you! I agree, we can definitely help a lot of these children through the education system. Most of these children go to poor inner city schools with no resources, if we fixed the education system we would be one step closer to fixing this problem. I just find it so disheartening that we allow these children to go through so much in their short lives without ever helping them but we are there with open arms welcoming them into the criminal justice system the very second they get into any type of trouble. These children go through so much in their short lives, yet we expect them to come out of it unscathed and go on to become productive citizens with no help, guidance, or role models.

  3. This blog was so moving. It really hurts me to see children go through so much. After reading this it makes me want to do so much more than just be a social worker. It makes me want to change the system and make sure that children never have to go through things kike this at such a young age. I agree that this can be changed to an extent, but that means that people in the education system and the social welfare system have to actually care for the children and want to make a change.
    Good job and keep it up!

  4. Nice Ton! I agree it is very sad that these kids should be punished and I don't believe because of their history that they should have to stay in prison for the rest of their lives. I hope Congress can come up with something for at risk children who commit crimes. Keep me posted and keep up the good work.

  5. I agree that locking juveniles away at such a young age is not the answer and something needs to be done, mostly in the education system, to get these kids out of this vicious cycle. I am working in juvenile prosecution this summer and I can say however, that I at least notice some difference in the way the system treats juveniles. The attorney I work for at least seems to be advocating for the children as well instead of just prosecuting them and trying to get them put away for as long as he can. In the limited amount of cases I have seen I have at least noticed some sense on the part of the attorneys, the judges and the department of juvenile services (DJS) to do what is best for the juvenile. Also, Maryland just enacted legislation to allow DJS to move juveniles to different care facilities without a court order when it is clear that the rehabilitation program they are in is not working for them. There is at least some hope that rehabilitating the juveniles is one of the main concern for at least some people in the system. However trying to do something to keep them out of the system all together would be better than just trying to rehabilitate them once they are already in the system.

  6. Really wow! Love the way you write. Yes children are not born criminals nor murderers. The environment makes them criminals. This has to be taken care of. Thanks for giving a 360 degree view on such a topic. Thank you!
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