In Chester, Pa., shortly after midnight one day in 1976, 14-year-old Trina Garnett, angry that her neighbor had not allowed her two sons to play with Trina, climbed into their house through a kitchen window and set it aflame. The house burned down and the boys were killed. Seven months later Trina was tried and convicted of arson and second degree murder and sentenced to two life terms plus 40 years in prison without possibility of parole. State law then allowed teenagers to be tried and punished as adults. The sentencing judge, according to Liliana Segura in a recent article in The Nation (5/28), called Ms. Garnett’s case “one of the saddest I’ve ever seen” and expressed regret that there was no prison that could protect inmates so young and vulnerable.
The evidence that Tina was mentally unstable and should not have been held responsible was overwhelming. The youngest of 12, she could neither read nor write. Her mother died early and her father was a violent alcoholic who beat the family dog to death and made the children clean up the bloody mess. The children were frequently homeless. Trina had set herself on fire when she was 5, spent two years in a state mental hospital, was diagnosed as schizophrenic and was declared unfit for trial following a psychiatric evaluation. But a third assessment declared her competent. According to the law, her lawyer had no right to present mitigating evidence because she was not facing the death penalty. Early in her sentence at the State Correctional Institution she was raped by a prison guard and gave birth to a son, Rodney, who was passed to the care of her sisters. Today, 50, she suffers from multiple sclerosis and is wheelchair bound.
According to “The Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings From a National Survey,” by Ashley Nellis (The Sentencing Project, March 2012), the criminal justice system has failed to protect child offenders who have been sent away not just to protect society but also to protect the children themselves from lives of violence and crime. Although the U. S. Supreme Court in 1976 found laws calling for mandatory death sentences cruel and unusual punishment, this right was not extended to mandatory life in prison.
In 1899 federal law recognized the differences in culpability between young and adult offenders and created juvenile courts in order, as the social reformer and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jane Addams said, to secure the young offender’s “orderly development in normal society.” But the rising crime rate in the 1980s and 1990s, along with the growth of crack cocaine markets, increased access to illegal guns and the tripling of the rate of juvenile homicides led to calls for “law and order” toughness. States passed laws that tried teenagers as adults. Policymakers disregarded the evidence that developmental differences might affect a person’s responsibility for a crime. Without a change in the law, the 2,589 prisoners now serving time for crimes committed as teenagers will die in prison.
On March 20 the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, of convicts who committed murder when they were 14. The appellants’ argument: When the brain is 14, the sophisticated circuitry between the frontal lobe and the rest of the brain, which enables adults to control their behavior, is barely developed.
The Sentencing Project survey concludes that in many cases the offenders were doubly burdened: (1) by circumstances, like poverty, community violence, family members in jail, single-parent homes, sexual abuse, expulsion from school and the strong correlation between race and the imposition of the death penalty; and (2) by bad advice from counsel in court, where 66 percent of defendants took the option of life without possibility of parole rather than risk a trial that might lead to a death sentence.
One of the more damaging aspects of long incarceration is that, although the inmates may mellow in behavior, perhaps because they have lost hope to live in society, they stop growing intellectually and emotionally. Over 61 percent of juvenile lifers do not participate in rehabilitation programs. Although two-thirds have completed high school or a G.E.D. program in prison, lack of programming or inertia produce a long life of destructive boredom. The answer: Stop the practice of trying juveniles as adults; eliminate life sentences without possibility of parole for them and thus restore hope; encourage life-sentenced inmates to engage in rehabilitation programming; house young offenders with their age group until their 20s; and invest more in the local programs that successfully lower the crime rates.
One mentor described a Florida inmate who entered prison at age 15 in 1993. He became a poet and remained balanced amid chaos. But, his mentor said, the young convict felt despair because of his “fear of dying in prison, never having achieved any of life’s goals that all young men think and dream about.” The mentor added, “He no more belongs in prison than I do.”