Rep. Chris Blazejewski introduced House bill 5650, sparking a debate in the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee hearing as to whether or not juvenile defendants should be subject to mandatory life sentences without parole. The American Bar Association, Amnesty International and the ACLU are just three highly regarded civil and human rights groups who have called for an end to this practice.
Juan Méndez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, said, in a recent report, “The vast majority of states have taken note of the international human rights requirements regarding life imprisonment of children without the possibility of release.” And, “life sentences or sentences of an extreme length have a disproportionate impact on children and cause physical and psychological harm that amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.”
According to Amnesty International, in written testimony submitted at the hearing, “The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child expressly prohibits life imprisonment without the possibility of release for crimes committed by people under 18 years of age. All countries except the USA and South Sudan have ratified the Convention. Somalia just recently ratified the treaty in January 2015 and South Sudan has already begun the process to become a signatory to the Convention.”
What a terrible place for the United States to find itself as an outlier.
The United States Supreme Court has been evolving on this issue for a decade. In 2012 the Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that “mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders,” yet stopped short of issuing a blanket ban. Judges are simply required to consider the defendant’s youth and the nature of the crime when determining a sentence.
Rhode Island has a historical claim to judicial sentencing temperance, having eradicated the death penalty in 1852. Yet on the issue of life sentences for juvenile defendants, our state is lagging behind. Al Jazeera reports that, “Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have banned life sentences without parole for juveniles.”
Recognizing the potential for rehabilitation, especially of juvenile defendants, is one of the hallmarks of a civilized society. Attorneys general in other states are getting behind similar legislation, according to testimony from Steve Brown of the RI ACLU, yet Attorney General Peter Kilmartin opposes the bill currently under consideration.
Speaking against the bill, Joee Lindbeck, who heads the AG’s Legislation and Policy Unit, brought up the specter of Craig Price, who committed four murders in 1989 while under the age of 16. Reacting to Price’s crimes, the General Assembly “passed a law in 1990 to allow the state to prosecute as an adult any juvenile charged with a capital offense.” Lindbeck maintains that keeping this law on the books prepares us for “worst-case scenarios” like Price.
From a prosecutors point of view, having draconian sentences on the books is important because of the leverage they provide. A kid who committed a crime is much more willing forgo a trial and plead out to a 10 or 20 year sentence if the AG has the power to potentially ask for life without parole. This brings up a question: Should we be empowering the AG with tools to intimidate, or tools to render justice?
Threatening defendants with life destroying sentences seems to save money in the short term, but in long run we have learned that such “cheap justice” is neither.