commentary by Patrick H. Moore

It is a scandal of the first order. Today in the U.S., more than 2,600 people are currently serving life without parole because of crimes they committed as children. We are the only country in the world that sentences juveniles under the age of 18 to life in prison without parole. On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute appeared before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and made the case that children convicted of serious crimes don’t deserve such a severe sentence.

“You need to have sentences that are intended to rehabilitate a child,” said Deborah LaBelle, an attorney with the ACLU, to The Huffington Post. “You need to incarcerate them for the least amount of time to achieve that goal.”

Simon McCormick of the Huffington Post writes:

Among the cases being highlighted by the groups is that of Juwan Wickware, who was 16 when he participated in a robbery that resulted in the death of a Flint, Mich., pizza delivery man.

debbs4According to Michigan Live, prosecutors said that on April 7, 2010, Wickware and another teen, Donqua Williams, shot at Michael Nettles, Williams with a .40-caliber pistol and Wickware with a .22-caliber rifle.

A .40-caliber bullet was found in Nettles and .22-caliber bullet casings were found at the scene. “It is absolutely clear Juwan didn’t shoot him,” said LaBelle.

The law in Michigan is that to be convicted of felony murder, a participant need not be directly responsible for killing someone, but merely complicit in a crime that results in another person’s death.

“If you’re in concert, or you’re engaged in a plan, and a murder results, they find that you’re involved in a felony murder,” LaBelle said. “Even if you’re not the person who committed the homicide, you get the same sentence.”

Needless to say, Wickware, whose record was clean up to that point, was found guilty of felony murder.

debbs5In 2012, shortly before Wickware was sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court spoke out of both sides of their mouth. From one side, they ruled that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders constituted cruel and unusual punishment. From the other side, however, they added the fatal caveat that judges could use discretion in imposing the sentence, thus rendering into law the philosophical viewpoint that cruel and unusual punishment is OKAY when a judge’s discretion leads him to decide that it’s OKAY.

Due to the caveat, the notion that life imprisonment for juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment becomes merely a suggestion.

debbs8Naturally, when Genesee Circuit Judge Archie Hayman sentenced Wickware to life without parole in August 2012, he utilized the escape hatch handed out by the Supreme Court stating that he was “convinced that it is the right thing to do in this particular situation.”

Then, in a strange twist of fate, a jury found Wickware’s accomplice, Donqua Williams, not guilty, even though a .40-caliber bullet was found in the victim Nettles, and Williams had fired his 40-caliber pistol. Williams escaped conviction because a woman who was in the deliveryman’s Jeep on the night of the slaying said she thought a third man killed Nettles.

Based on this theory, the actual shooter apparently escapes completely and Williams, who may be the actual shooter, also goes free. Only Wickware, who shot at but did not hit Nettles, is convicted of anything.

debbs3LaBelle and the ACLU believe the sentence of life without parole should be banned outright for juvenile offenders. They cite the United Nations Commission Against Torture’s determination that the life sentence was tantamount to torture in such circumstances. Which of course makes a certain sense. LWOP for a juvenile is a sort of elongated torture that lasts a lifetime and, it should be added, becomes dramatically more torturous should the lifer ends up in solitary for any period of time. In solitary, the torture is stepped up an indeterminate number of notches.

The Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination also found that the application of the sentence is tinged with racial inequities.

But in opposition to Labelle, the ACLU and their kindred spirits, proponents of LWOP for juveniles contend that sometimes the purpose of the punishment isn’t about rehabilitation Which is another way of stating that for at least 40 years now in America, by and large, punishment has been purely that, PUNISHMENT which is often referred to as RETRIBUTION. Scary word. The old time-honored rehabilitative model actually did exist in the U.S. and was the official policy at least up until sometime in the 1960s.

Here is a LWOP rationale:

“The one thing that we don’t know is what the potential of the life would be that was snuffed out in the crime,” Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel told NPR in 2012. “The hypothetical of who might be rehabilitated in prison is a hard one to analyze, but there have to be some circumstances under which these persons can serve life without parole.”

debbs11In this mindset, the thinking seems to be that in order for punishment to counts, it has to cruel and unusual.

Former Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman would appear to think precisely that.

“As a moral matter, it is okay for a government to say, ‘Even if there is a possibility that someone will rehabilitate themselves, if a person commits a sufficiently egregious crime, then they just deserve a very severe sentence,'” Neiman told NPR.

debbs7Labelle of course emphatically disagrees. She also makes the point that the issue is not just about ending the overly cruel, unproductive and misguided sentencing policy that has resulted in more than 2,600 people currently serving LWOP because of crimes they committed as children. Labelle also points out that the practice also hurts America’s international reputation.

“It undermines the country’s human rights record and position in the world,” LaBelle said. “It deprives them of moral authority when they’re willing to throw children in prison until they die.”

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debbs9It deprives us of our moral authority when we are willing to throw our children into prison and keep them there until they die.  Take this statement and memorize it. Make it your practice to repeat it to at least five people a day 6 or 7 days a week. Keep on doing it for a year. Then do it for another year. Time passes slowly for our children serving LWOP.



6 Responses to U.S. Only Country Where A Child Can Be Sentenced To Life without Parole

  1. Darcia Helle says:

    Excellent piece, Patrick.

    I just finished a book called Destructive Justice, which is a fictionalized memoir on this very topic. (Names and details were changed to protect the family.) The author’s son was 17 when he was arrested for robbery. The kid and his 30-year-old partner-in-crime were in and out in 10 minutes and no one was hurt. The kid was sentenced to 27 years without parole PLUS 3 life sentences! (There were four people in the place he robbed, so the sentence is for each person involved.) The kid was going through a troubled time, but had never been in the system and was not violent. Such a tragic story. It baffles me how child molesters and rapists manage to get just a few years in prison, while kids like this are put away for life.

  2. Max Myers says:

    Tragic and heartbreaking.

  3. Lise LaSalle says:

    I don’t know how they live with themselves. They have never heard of restorative justice for a minor? And also for most adults for that matter.

    This kid was not even a repeat offender and probably the product of his surroundings. He was disposable like a kleenex. It makes me ill.

  4. Max Myers says:

    The problem, Lise, is that our justice system is not now, nor was it ever intended to rehabilitate. I doubt that is will change in the foreseeable future.

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