Dozens Of Children Serving Life In Prison—How Do We Let This Happen?
By NICK CHILES
A report yesterday on CBS Sunday Morning revealed a factoid that stopped us in our tracks here at MyBrownBaby: There are more than 70 thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds in the United States serving sentences of life in prison—and nearly two-thirds of them are children of color.
We’ve written here about the American obsession with prisons and how shameful it is that our country has turned imprisonment into big business, using the incarceration of unprecedented numbers of black boys as a means of keeping afloat small towns all across the nation. As was reported in a recent expose in The New Yorker, more than half of all black men without a high school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives.
The CBS report added yet another shocking layer to this despicable American story: The treatment of our nation’s child criminals. As revealed by the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, most of the sentences imposed on the 73 children serving life in prison were mandatory: the court could not give any consideration to the child’s age or life history. Some of the crimes charged against them do not involve homicide or even injury. And, as you might expect, many of these children were convicted for offenses where older teenagers or adults were involved and primarily responsible for the crime.
Gandhi once said that the greatness of a nation is measured by how it treats its weakest members. What is there to say about a nation that will send children away for life to adult prisons, where they will be subjected to all manners of indecent, unthinkable treatment? These sentences are called “death in prison.” Indeed, the Equal Justice Initiative argued before the U.S. Supreme Court last month that giving life sentences to children constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” which is a violation of the Constitution. We are still awaiting the court’s decision—but knowing the extreme conservatism and questionable judgment of this court, we shouldn’t hold our breaths that the decision will contain even an iota of compassion or humanity.
A society that would send 73 children away for life sentences in adult prisons sounds to me like a society that has lost its soul. Maybe one of these days we might get it back—that is, if we ever had one.