Prominent conservative leaders Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan penned a forceful editorial last week in the San Diego Union-Tribune advocating that states such as California abandon the draconian practice of sentencing children to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. While professing their continued commitment to conservative values, Gingrich and Nolan assail criminal laws that fail to recognize the inherent differences between children and adults and thus destroy all hope for youth who may one day deserve the opportunity to rejoin society. Sentencing children to spend the rest of their lives in prison, they assert, represents “an overuse of incarceration.”
Gingrich and Nolan’s editorial is a continuation of their “Right on Crime” campaign, which may help turn down the volume on conservatives’ racially-charged rhetoric on criminal justice that has led to our nation’s woefully misguided “tough on crime” policies. These policies have directly fueled the explosion of mass incarceration, a phenomenon that has resulted in the United States having the highest levels of incarceration in the industrialized world. For children, Gingrich and Nolan’s editorial marks a retreat from the sensationalized predictions of the 1990’s that this country faced an impending epidemic of violence from a generation of “super predator” children. Though these predictions never came to fruition, and the myth of the “super-predator” has since been disclaimed by the criminologist who first articulated it, the misguided sentencing practices they spawned – practices that led to increasing numbers of children being tried in adult court and subjected to the state’s harshest sentences – are largely responsible for the fact that this country has sentenced over 2,500 juveniles to life imprisonment with no hope for parole. No other nation in the world is known to engage in this practice.
Gingrich and Nolan’s views echo those of the United States Supreme Court, which has recently led the way in reforming the excesses of juvenile sentencing. In a trilogy of cases beginning in 2005, the Court has declared that juveniles cannot receive the death penalty, life without parole for nonhomicide offenses, and, mostly recently in Miller v. Alabama, mandatory sentences of life without parole for any crime. The Court’s landmark decision in Miller contained its most explicit recognition that children are less culpable than adults. This fundamental truth is already recognized by much of society and reflected in many of our laws, such as those that designate a minimum age at which a young adult can join the military, consume alcohol, or serve on a jury. Now, this distinction is being embraced by a growing number of conservatives.
The ACLU is fully committed to ensuring that the thousands of children our society has treated, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as “throw away people” receive the meaningful opportunity for release guaranteed to them by the Court’s recent decrees. In the wake of Miller, this effort faces many challenging questions. The ACLU is actively litigating these issues in Michigan, a state with 361 individuals serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed as children – the second highest number among jurisdictions in the country. In a federal class action lawsuit the ACLU filed with our Michigan affiliate and local counsel, the federal district court last week held oral arguments focused on what relief states must provide to individuals wrongly denied access to parole for juvenile crimes. In a separate case before the Michigan Court of Appeals, the ACLU and its Michigan affiliate are preparing an amicus brief asserting, among other things, that Miller applies to all juveniles, even those who have finished their appeals. The ACLU has also challenged Michigan’s juvenile sentencing laws and policies before the Inter-American Commission, charging the United States with violating universally recognized human rights laws and standards for allowing Michigan to impose life without parole sentences on children. However, for these efforts to have lasting impact they must be combined with advocacy that builds a deeper societal appreciation of why condemning children to life imprisonment is immoral. That is why efforts like Gingrich and Nolan’s are so necessary and appreciated.