Juvenile Life Without Parole, Our Serial Offense

By Clio Chang

One million listeners of the hit nonfiction podcast Serial have been obsessing over one question -- who killed Hae Min Lee? For the few of you left who aren't in the loop, Serial centers around the 1999 murder of Lee, a Baltimore high-school student, and the subsequent conviction of Adnan Syed, her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend.

Adnan, a minor, was tried as an adult and sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison.

Juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentencing is a topic that the podcast, thus far, has barely touched upon. Technically, Adnan has a chance of parole, but the odds of his actually getting it are slim to none. Although Sarah Koenig, the producer of Serial, refers to Adnan as a "teenager in America doing American teenage things," the court refers to him as a "man" who committed a premeditated murder.

It's an essential distinction that Koenig neglects, and in doing so, she ignores an important aspect of Adnan's experience in the justice system.

Living as a Child, Tried as an Adult
Despite the immense popularity of the podcast, Adnan's story is far from exceptional. In fact, he is one of approximately 2,500 individuals convicted as juveniles who are today serving life without parole in America, the only industrialized country that gives such a sentence to those under 18 years of age.

Children as young as 13 in the United States have been tried as adults and sentenced to life in prison. To put this in perspective, that's the age in which students in school are typically learning about the Earth's layers and how to classify triangles.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that juveniles convicted of murder could not automatically receive life sentences without parole and that judges must be allowed to take a juvenile's age into account when deciding on the appropriate punishment. However, the question of retroactivity -- of whether the decision applies to prisoners who were sentenced before the ruling -- has thus far been left to the states.

Only four states have passed legislation allowing for resentencing among the current JLWOP population, and only six state courts have ruled that Miller applies retroactively, while three have ruled the other way, leaving thousands of prisoners to serve out sentences that have been determined cruel and unusual punishment by the nation's highest court.

While Maryland has since convened a Task Force on Juvenile Court Jurisdiction, it hasn't changed its laws, and it still lists life imprisonment as a possible sentence for someone as young as 14 years of age who commits first-degree murder. And the state's courts have not even addressed the retroactivity of Miller, so Adnan currently has little hope of re-sentencing.

Punishing Bad Luck
Perhaps the only exceptional element in Adnan's story is that he grew up in a healthy and supportive middle-class family.

Whereas Adnan's trial filled the courtroom with family and friends, most JLWOP prisoners are not so lucky. A third of them grew up in public housing, half were physically abused, and four out of five witnessed violence in their homes.

Evan Miller, the respondent in the Supreme Court case, suffered so much abuse throughout his life that he attempted suicide four times -- the first time was when he was 6 years old -- before he received his JLWOP sentencing at the age of 14. He did not choose his childhood; it was simply his misfortune to be born into it.

This is not be belittle Miller's crime -- he and his older accomplice were convicted of brutally murdering their victim. But capping short, nasty childhoods with a lifetime in prison seems like a cruel justice, especially when stories like Miller's, not Adnan's, are the norm when it comes to juvenile criminals.

Race Matters
The latest Serial episode questions whether racial stereotyping of Adnan's Muslim heritage contributed to his conviction (but, strangely, not his harsh sentence).

While Koenig does not squarely pin the blame on anti-Muslim sentiment, the truth is that racial disparities plague the justice system all the time, with juvenile minorities receiving an outsized portion of heavy sentences.

Black youths represent 17 percent of the overall youth population, but make up 30 percent of those arrested, and are 62 percent of those tried as adults. And while there are four times as many black minors arrested for killing a white victim than white minors arrested for killing a black victim, 12 times more black minors receive a life sentence without parole for killing whites than vice versa.

While sentencing any child to life imprisonment is cruel (it's actually considered inhumane by U.N. standards), allowing unjust racial disparities to persist when sentencing child offenders is only doubling down on this cruelty.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates states in The Atlantic, when looking at racial disparities in the way our society enforces the law and dispenses justice, it's important to remember that these cases begin not with individual deaths, but with existing government policies at every level, including juvenile sentencing.

So when we fight to eliminate disparities in our justice system, it is important to remember that we need to extend that battle to reach America's incarcerated children.

So What Now?
In January 2013, California set the bar for compassion by passing the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, which allowed JLWOP prisoners to ask for a new sentencing hearing, thus giving them the chance of parole.

Research has shown that children have a large capacity for reform, or as the American Psychological Association terms it, "greater changeability." Locking juveniles up for life and trying them as adults ignores this fact. Additionally, JLWOP is incredibly expensive for taxpayers -- the annual cost of incarceration per inmate is approximately $31,000, which amounts to almost $2 million over an average lifetime.

Other states should not only eliminate JLWOP from their court systems, but also follow California's example and apply retroactivity to current JLWOP prisoners.

As for you Serial fans, you should be obsessed not only over who killed Hae Min Lee, but also over why there are still children being condemned to life in prison.

Clio Chang
is a policy associate at the Century Foundation.

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