There are more than 40,000 people who have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in the U.S. Of those, 2,500 were under the age of 18 when they committed the crime that resulted in their sentence.
Now, some of these juvenile offenders can hope for a potential future where they are free from behind bars. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the mandatory life-without-parole sentence for juveniles is an example of cruel and unusual punishment, violating the Eight Amendment. Previously, 28 states mandated a life term for those convicted of homicide, including youths.
As Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his dissenting opinion, the number of juveniles serving life sentences without parole reflects the “get tough” philosophy of punishment of the late 1980s to mid-1990s. Amid a sharp rise in juvenile crime in the late ‘80s, local and federal lawmakers largely abandoned the rehabilitative ideal, transforming the juvenile justice system to more closely resemble the adult justice system.
Since 1994, however, juvenile crime rates have gradually dropped. Though juvenile detention rates have not followed suit, the focus seems to be shifting from accountability and punishment toward rehabilitation, particularly on a local level.
Juveniles can now hope for a future where they are free from behind bars. Credit: Ace Kupal on Flickr
For instance, in this week’s Forefront story, Richard Webster writes about efforts to reform New Orleans’ long-troubled juvenile justice system. Many local advocates maintain that if the system can be reformed with an eye toward therapeutic programming and education — including the construction of a new, more humane detention center — New Orleans may see improved juvenile crime rates.
The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, has been an active player in juvenile justice reform on a national level, introducing innovative programs to New Orleans and other cities and areas across the U.S., including Cook County, Ill.
Before reform took hold in the mid-1990s, Cook County’s juvenile detention center was known for its violent, unsanitary conditions — conditions brought to national attention when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the county in 1999 on behalf of the juveniles offenders housed at the center. Concern has also been focused on the disproportionate admission rate of African Americans to the centers, which is 46 times that of white youths.
Advocates for reform have proposed several solutions to help fix Cook County’s system, including community-based alternatives to detention that send more youths to group homes where they can be offered job training and other life-skill instruction. Group homes or monitored home confinement seem to be viable alternatives, since it is estimated that 45 percent of youths housed in Cook County’s juvenile detention centers pose no threat to the public.
Illinois is one of four states chosen by the Models for Change initiative for its leadership in the juvenile justice system reform, which could possibly be replicated by other states. The initiative, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, works to share models of local, rehabilitation-focused reforms of the juvenile justice system available across the country, with the hope of enacting change on a greater scale.
California Gov. Jerry Brown proposed cutting the statewide division of the Division of Juvenile Justice. Credit: Randy Bayne on Flickr
As part of its program, Models of Change works actively with California, a state which has recently enacted some headline-making reforms. In 2007, the state made took the unprecedented step of banning the commitment of nonviolent youths to the state’s troubled juvenile detention centers. Since passing the reform, eight of 11 large centers have been closed. The youth inmate population has been reduced to 1,000, down from 10,000 prisoners in 1996.
With the inmate population so low, advocates now are calling for the closing of what remains of the state ‘s Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ). Advocates argue it makes little sense to keep the DJJ running, as the price to keep it open is exorbitant — about $200,000 per youth annually. In January, California Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a plan to close the statewide division of the DJJ by January 2013, devoting $10 million in funds to help individual counties design options for the realigned caseload.
Brown’s proposal was met with skepticism, the focus of which was the fates of those juveniles with serious offenses currently held by the DJJ. Prosecutors maintained that the DJJ should remain a rehabilitative option for these offenders who might otherwise be sent to adult prisons. This issue, among others, is still being debated by both state and local stakeholders.
The shift of focus toward the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders on both a state and local level has been gradual. Monday’s Supreme Court decision does not seem to indicate an evolution of the Court’s moral attitude towards the idea of sentencing a youth to a life without the possibility of rehabilitation. Though more initiatives are emerging that encourage the rehabilitation model for youth offenders, it remains to be seen whether one day all juvenile offenders may have the opportunity to be considered for such programs.