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 DavisBlogger, Criminal Law Brief