Joining the movement to end harsh juvenile life sentencing in America
Legislators, courts and other stakeholders need to provide incarcerated youth a meaningful second chance
By Tatiana Hilaire, a 2L student at UDC David A. Clarke School of Law
As a second-year law student attending the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law (UDC Law), I often reminisce on the journey that got me here. I primarily focus on my decisions as a youth and how they shaped my future. Most teenagers’ dreams include going to college, finding a job or getting their first car, but never going to jail — especially for life.
The United States stands as the only nation that sentences people to life without parole for crimes committed before turning 18 years old. In the United States, children as young as 13 are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives behind bars without the opportunity of release. However, neuroscience now shows that most people do not reach full maturity until they are 25 years of age.
In many cases, young people are serving de facto death behind bars prison terms.
In part because of this scientific data, in Miller v. Alabama (2012), the United States Supreme Court held that children convicted of murder could no longer be subjected to a mandatory life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Instead, the youthful characteristics of the accused juvenile would need to be considered at the time of sentencing. While life without parole was not abolished, the Court explained it should be imposed only in the rare or “uncommon” case where there is no possibility of rehabilitation for the juvenile.
According to the ACLU, approximately 2,570 children were serving juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) sentences at the time Miller was decided. In 2016, Miller’s ruling was made retroactive in Montgomery v. Louisiana, requiring sentencing review proceedings for those juveniles already serving automatic life without parole sentences.
Just a few weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court revisited Miller and Montgomery to clarify some parts of the sentencing and resentencing process in juvenile murder cases. In Jones v. Mississippi (2021), the Court held sentencing judges are not required to make separate express findings of permanent incorrigibility before imposing a sentence of life without parole upon a juvenile. At the end of the day, however, Miller’s mandate — banning mandatory life without parole for children, declaring that life imprisonment without release should be uncommon for children in our system and requiring consideration of youth at sentencing — has not changed.
Yet Miller v. Alabama did not expressly apply to individuals sentenced to life imprisonment — that is, life with the mere possibility of release on parole — or to very long term-of-year sentences, like 240 years. Though in many such cases, young people are serving de facto death behind bars prison terms, and judges were not required to consider Miller youth-related factors at the time of the sentencing.
If the justice system is truly about fairness, life sentences or de facto life without parole would not be imposed upon children either without requiring consideration of their youth. As a result, such sentences would be extremely rare occurrences, too, and child defendants who received these kinds of sentences would receive the same kind of sentencing review as in cases covered by Miller and more recently described in Jones.
Cyntoia Denise Brown was sentenced at the age of 16 to life imprisonment. In Tennessee this meant she would have had to serve at least 51 years before being eligible for release. Brown, however, was sold at a young age by her mother to become a sex worker and was sentenced for the murder of a man who solicited her for sex. Her legal counsel tried to challenge her sentence. Even though statistics suggest that Brown may not have lived to see parole review in 51 years, those legal claims were unsuccessful. Nonetheless, due to public awareness of Brown’s case — including advocacy by Kim Kardashian and Rihanna — Tennessee governor Bill Haslam granted clemency to Brown.
Many other incarcerated children in America have not received a second look. Their cases — also marked by inhumanity and injustice — do not receive public attention or high-profile advocacy by celebrities, and, to date, clemency has been rare.
At 16 years old, Bobby Bostic was sentenced to 241 years. Under the rules in Missouri, Bostic would not be eligible for parole until 2091, making him 112 years old when he could first seek release. He described his first months in prison as a time of “predator versus prey,” where he had to defend himself against adult inmates. Despite Bostic’s achievements in prison, such as receiving his GED, taking business classes and receiving a paralegal diploma, Missouri still considers him a criminal who needs to pay his debt to society with his life — and then some.
The United States stands as the only nation that sentences people to life without parole for crimes committed before turning 18 years old.
When a sentencing court declares “241 years with the possibility of parole,” it conveys the very same thing as “life without parole” to a youth and society. Indeed, on the day of sentencing, Bobby Bostic’s judge — who has since expressed remorse about the sentence she imposed — told him to enjoy the rest of his life in prison.
Bostic was still just a youth at the time of his sentence and likely did not fully appreciate the weight of what had taken place. Imagine hearing those words as a young person. I could not fathom hearing that I would never be able to travel the world, have children or enjoy simple life pleasures because of my adolescent mistakes — however grave they were. Yet Miller and Montgomery do not expressly apply to Bostic’s case, and he has not received a sentencing review proceeding.
Harsh juvenile sentencing is despicable because everyone makes mistakes, but we can learn from them. I would never want my loved ones to receive lifetime sentences for crimes they committed at a young age. Yet America is still allowing children to spend life in prison for crimes they committed when their brains weren’t fully developed and before they could fully process the consequences of their decisions.
When a sentencing court declares “241 years with the possibility of parole,” it conveys the very same thing as “life without parole” to a youth and society.
U.S. judges and policymakers need to better understand the effects of such penalties on juveniles, their families, communities and our place in the world. Sentencing children to ensure their death behind bars is cruel and still too common in this country. It is high time for the United States to reconsider laws and practices that continue to allow for juvenile life — and de facto life — sentences.
Tatiana Hilaire is a 2L at the UDC David A. Clark School Law, where she served as an advocate in the Youth Justice Clinic. She plans on pursuing a career as a criminal attorney. When she is not studying law, Tatiana enjoys new activities and spending time with her loved ones.