The Consequence of a Lifetime
Author: Josh Valdez
In “The Consequence of a Lifetime,” Josh Valdez, a sociology major at Brigham Young University- Idaho, argues that because of political views, such as being “tough-on-crime” more juveniles are being tried and sentenced in adult courts. Juveniles are being held to adult standards and therefore receiving adult mandatory minimum sentences. Valdez focuses on the effects of lifetime incarceration and argues that all states should prohibit the possibility of sentencing a juvenile offender to a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Evan Miller at age fourteen was convicted of murdering Cole Coleman by beating him and setting Coleman’s trailer to fire. (Rhodes, 2015, p. 1002) Miller was initially tried as a juvenile, but state prosecutors were able to petition and change the judicial sentencing process to prosecute Miller as an adult. This resulted in a life sentence without the possibility of parole or in other words, Miller, at age fourteen, will never be able to be released again from prison. As a society, we should be concerned if what we are currently doing by incarcerating young offenders for life in facilities all over the nation is the best way to rehabilitating and reforming them as individuals. Currently, 2,500 juveniles are serving sentences of life without parole nationwide, some offenders as young as thirteen years old. In 2012, after a global consensus where it was decided that juveniles cannot be responsible or held to the same laws and standards as adults. (American Civil Liberties Union, 2012, Web) Our society advocates for being tough-on-crime, however, juveniles should not be tried in adult courts where a life without parole sentence is a possibility. The United States continues to allow and accept such sentencing but do not see the benefits and abilities of juvenile facilities where successful rehabilitation and reintegration of juvenile offenders happens on the daily.
Juveniles need to realize the ramifications and be held responsible for their actions, however, a life without parole sentence should never be considered for a child who commits any type of violent crime. Later in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that “juveniles convicted of murder cannot be subject to a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.” (American Civil Liberties Union, 2012, Web) Since 2012 to 2015, only twelve states have officially banned sentencing convicted juveniles to life without the possibility of parole. It is an infringement on the 8th amendment of the constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, which also guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions such as a life sentence. Many of the remaining 38 states still allow these kind of harsh sentences, Idaho is currently not one of the states that have prohibited LWOP sentences for juveniles even with the Supreme Court ruling against such sentencing. (Sheriff, 2015, Web.)
Since 2012, we have seen campaigning and advocates of life sentences to be “tough-on-crime” resulting in developing policies and institutions designed to limit options and hold judges and attorneys to abide by sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentencing. This has not only affected incarcerated adults leading to mass incarceration, but these standards have also brought an imbalance to the juvenile justice system by holding young offenders to these same “one size fits all” sentencing standards. Anthony Kennedy, a Supreme Court Justice, expresses his concern about the imbalance of the juvenile system by stating, “The tough-on-crime movement has finally gone too far that it's over-reaching [has] crossed the boundary into unconstitutional cruelty.” (Cohen, 2011, p.9) Because there is a push in our society to be tough-on-crime, it has resulted in a false notion that people who want to change or amend such new policies would been seen as “soft” on crime, potentially forfeiting any future re-elections. These false accusations are the leading cause as to why many states have been so delayed in accepting the Supreme Court ruling about juvenile life without parole modification, something that Justice Kennedy has been working on for his entire career. (Ferguson, 2011, c.2011)
Such had been the situation for Erik Jensen, a seventeen year old teenager, who had received a life without parole sentence for first degree murder. Now, one might argue that Erik Jensen was old enough to release his actions and even deserves his life long sentence, however, if we look more deeply into his case one might realize exactly what Justice Kennedy has been fighting. Erik Jensen had become friends with Nathan Ybanez, who is also currently serving a life without parole sentence along with Erik Jensen.
Nathan had just moved to Colorado where he and Erik began to play together in a rock band. Nathan and Erik had been frequently been together at the Jensen residence where Erik’s parents noticed something troubling about Nathan. They asked a lot about Nathan’s family life, where often they received bleak answers and become significantly concerned about Nathan when he refused to go to their high school homecoming dance. From then on, Erik decided to keep a close eye on his friend Nathan and soon found out that Nathan was being physically and sexually abused by his mother. One night, when Erik had given Nathan a ride home, Nathan had instructed Erik to wait in the car and to come get him if he was not back in twenty minutes. Erik waiting the twenty minutes and not seeing Nathan went inside the Ybanez residence. Erik witnessed Nathan beat and strangle to death his mom, Julie Ybanez. Shocked Erik collapsed onto the carpet in the front room, Nathan instructed him to help him clean up the body, which he did.
Erik expressed his thinking during a Frontline interview, "I basically just went along with the flow, and I think Nate did, too. Once the floodgate came down and all that stuff that happened to him all came out at once, he was just rolling along like I was." (Frontline, 1999, Web.) During the time that Nathan and Erik were awaiting trial, the Columbine shooting in Colorado took place resulting in a social push to be stricter on specifically young white adults, the jury sentenced Erik Jensen and Nathan Ybanez guilty for first degree murder, which in the state of Colorado results in a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole. Frontline reports that:
Erik and Nate worry that they will not be able to survive forever in prison if all their avenues of appeal should fail. "Slowly and ceaselessly, this prison system is destroying those good, human qualities I still possess," Erik wrote in an excerpt of his journal published by the Rocky Mountain News. "If the truly important parts of myself get taken, I hope I will have awareness enough to kill myself." (Frontline, 1999, Web.)
We must wonder if what Justice Kennedy is explaining is correct after hearing about Erik Jensen who received a life sentence for helping to clean up what had been a murder scene. (Steffen, 2014, Web.)
Many times in other such cases, these juvenile offenders are often victims of sexual abuse and assault often caused by a parent or guardian of the juvenile. The Sentencing Project, a group designed to monitor the Justice system took a survey in 2012 asking juvenile offenders with life sentences about home life. The results they found were that, 79% witnessed violence in their homes, 40% had been enrolled in special education classes, 47% were physically abused, and fewer than half were attending school at the time of their offense. (The Sentencing Project, 2012, Web.) Such was the case with Nathan Ybanez when he committed parenticide by killing his mother. He was both being sexually abused and physically assaulted for years before his offense. According to Margaret Shippen, a writer for the Juvenile Correctional Professional Development Department reports that currently the “United States spends more than five billion dollars a year on juvenile correction facilities.” (Shippen, 2014, p.69) Many criminologists desire a change in the way that we have the juvenile system set up. Currently the Juvenile Justice System expanding facilities to house not only short term juvenile offenders but also long term to life sentenced offenders as well. Julia Dahl, a contributing editor for the Crime Report, reports, that “not only do most juvenile detention centers not employ any type of counselor, but many are also caught up in scandals involving sexual and physical abuse. The key to keeping juveniles out of the justice system is to implement early intervention programs.” (Dahl, 2006, p.30)
Each and every juvenile case should be handled individually, not by a set mandatory sentencing that is influenced by sentencing guidelines that in essence result in tying the judge’s hands to force a life without parole sentence upon a juvenile is what many advocates are trying to change. Joshua Rovner, a State Advocacy Associate for The Sentencing Project is one person pushing alongside with Justice Kennedy stating that:
All states have the opportunity to revise their sentencing practices to align with international norms and the growing consensus among the states. Children are uniquely capable of change and require a second look down the road. Juveniles have a capacity for rehabilitation that should not be ignored. (Rovner, 2014, Web.)
Not only is sentencing a juvenile to a life sentence taking hope from a child but also wasting a life that is full of potential to change and try again. When we take a child’s ability to learn and progress in society we waste their life behind bars. We are prohibiting these juveniles to turn from a life of crime by incarcerating young offenders for life. But the justice system uses millions of tax payer’s dollars to house these individuals every day in facilities nationwide. Eartha Melzer, a writer for Michigan Messenger, reports that Michigan holds up to 346 juvenile inmates that are serving life sentencing costing Michigan tax payers more than $30,000 every year per inmate. This will cost millions of dollars over the next serval decades that Michigan tax payers will struggle with already having a deficit of $1.5 billion in the prison system, money that should be used in preventive programs (Melzer, 2009, p. 83).
This goes to show, we have a need in our society to take new look on how we are rehabilitating and sentencing our juvenile offenders, ones that really can be rehabilitated and helped to be able to be helpful in society. Juveniles are mentally and emotionally than adults, they have so many developing emotions and radical reactions to cope with such as peer pressure and “fitting in”. When we treat juveniles as adults, we condemn them to fit the model of the adult criminal creating more problems inside correctional facilities. Alison Parker, Deputy Director of the U.S. Program at Human Rights watch advocates that, “Children are different than adults. They need to be punished for serious crimes but they punishment they receive needs to acknowledge their capacity for rehabilitation and life without parole does not do that.” (Parker, 2010, p. 28)
As a nation, we cannot justify our actions by simply saying that we have “the worst of the worst” juveniles and that is why we are an exception to the agreement made in the global consensus in 2012, we must realize that this is a problem we can face and fix by the right approach. The right approach is defined by Judge Thomas Edwards stating:
If we have a failing as a society, from my very narrow, very unique perspective as a juvenile court judge in my community, we fail families. We should be helping to provide them with whatever services they need when the children are very, very young. (Edwards, 2012, Web.)
If we fail, we fail in the base unit of our society, the family. This is the case when we see generations of criminals or sexual or physical abuse is because the core unit of an individual’s life is what we, as a society, need to strengthen and life. Judge Edwards goes on to say that, this failure to strengthen and support the family is where our society has made the biggest mistake and we are now paying the price for not intervening sooner. (Edwards, 2012, Web.)
In conclusion, we would have more success in both rehabilitation and reintegration of these young individuals, if we would give them a goal to work towards. As a society, we can bring a brighter future to a child who maybe has never seen the potential they are capable of. With the right programs of prevention and the right programs behind bars, we can change a hardened life slowly into a capable and responsible life. Young offenders such as Erik Jensen and Nathan Ybanez would have the chance to learn from their mistakes and work toward their freedom. I am in no way dismissing or diminishing the crime that Nathan and Erik committed but I am advocating that we give a solution to a nationwide problem that will have an end result, rehabilitation and correction. The United States needs to come to complete submission to the global justice motion to ban sentencing juveniles to the same standards that we sentence adults there for banning a Juvenile Life without parole sentence.
Bikel, O. (2007/2015). When Kid’s Get Life. Frontline. PBS, Web.
Dahl, J. (2011/2015) Incarcerated Juveniles are often Abused and Mistreated. Detroit, Greenhaven Press, 30-34.
Edwards, T. (2012/2015) Juvenile Justice: What Works? Frontline. WGBH educational foundation, Web.
Ferguson, O. (2011/2015). Should juveniles be given life without parole? Detroit. Greenhaven Press, c2011.
Melzer, E. (2009/2015) Juvenile LWOP Wastes Taxpayer Money. Detroit, Greenhaven Press, 83-86.
Parker, A. (2010/2015) LWOP for Juveniles is Morally Wrong. Detroit, Greenhaven Press, 28.
Rhodes, T. A. (2012/2015). Cruel and Unusual before and after 2012: Miller V. Alabama must Apply Retroactively. Maryland Law Review, 74(4), 1001-1030.
Rover, J. (2014/2015). Slow to Act: State Responses to 2012 Supreme Court Mandate on Life without Parole. The Sentencing Project, Web.
Sheriff, N. (2015/2015). UN expert slams US as only nation to imprison kids for life without parole. Al Jazeera America, Web.
Shippen, M. E., Houchins, D. E., & Lockwood, S. (2014/2015). Juvenile Correctional Professional Development: From Conceptualization to Evaluation. Journal of Correctional Education, 65(1), 68-87.
Steffen. J. (2014/2015). Colorado Supreme Court Hears Arguments for Juvenile Sentences. Denver and the West. The Denver Post, Web.