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David Chura: Life Terms for Minors are “Cruel and Unusual Punishment”

Today's post is from David Chura, author of I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup. Chura has worked with at-risk teenagers for forty years. His writing has appeared in the New York Times and multiple literary journals and anthologies, and he is a frequent lecturer and advisor on incarcerated youth.

Book Cover for I Don't Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine There are 109 inmates serving life sentences without parole for non-homicide crimes they committed when they were 18 or younger. Some, put behind bars when they were 13 or 14, have been locked up for twenty or thirty years.

Those 109-- minors then, adults now in their prime, or at least they should be, if they weren't facing a slow, cruel death in jail-- are a part of something that is uniquely American. According to Amnesty International, the United States is the only country that imprisons children for life (the same country, the PEW Charitable Trust reported in 2008, that now incarcerates one out of every one hundred of its citizens).

This year the United States Supreme Court has agreed to consider two of those 109 cases. One involves a man who, at the age of 13, robbed and raped an elderly woman in 1989; the other was 16 when he took part in two break-ins in 2005. Each was sentenced by a Florida court to life without parole. The high court must decide whether such life imprisonment is "cruel and unusual punishment."

There are over 50 groups filing in support of these two inmates. It's a roll call of religious, legal, correctional, educational, medical and psychological professionals. As varied as the groups are, there's not much difference in their reasoning. All the briefs, whether based on spiritual belief or scientific research, come down to the same thing, to something that seems obvious to me: children change, develop, are redeemable; children are vulnerable to immense forces in their lives, forces that they can't control but sometimes act out of.

It seems like a lot of effort for two people (or 109, depending upon how you look at it) who, when they were young, did some pretty terrible things. But those hundreds of professionals and concerned citizens know that if we don't stop it now, there'll be a lot more than 109 kids facing the same fate, given the country's mood when it comes to kids and crime. It is a mood that was set into motion in the mid-1990s when some political scientists warned the public of the impending threat of young "super-predators," and so the jihad on juvenile crime began.

Despite the juvenile justice system's earlier, fundamental belief that youthful offenders can and should be rehabilitated, today's laws are more about retribution and revenge. These draconian laws seem written for monsters, and it's not surprising, when you consider the hype surrounding youth culture today and the media-fed images of teenagers as ruthless street thugs.

I don't know any of the 109 inmates living out their own death penalties, but over my ten years of teaching high school kids serving time in an adult lockup I've met my own 109+ young men and women. The teens I worked with weren't serving life sentences without parole, but they very well could have been if, as they would say, they "were in the wrong place at the wrong time."

These locked up youngsters had been a part of the system-- family court, foster care, group homes-- for most of their short lives. They didn't sign up for it; they got put there one way or another, by the actions of a neglectful mother, an alcoholic father, a teenage girl who didn't find it fun anymore to take care of a baby. Kids like Donald, a student of mine, whose mother sent him out to the streets at 11 years old to sell drugs to support her crack habit, and where he eventually found his own habit; or Warren, whose 16 year old mother practically pickled him in alcohol while she was pregnant, and who was walking proof of the damage done.

These kids didn't volunteer for a life spent among strangers in every variety of state childcare institution. They were there until they got tired of it, as many battered and abused kids eventually will, and started making their own choices-- the wrong choices, but when I heard what limited resources they had to work with I wondered, "How could it be otherwise?" Choices that led them to juvenile detention, maybe drug rehab or a psych hospital, then back on the streets to set the whole cycle spinning again. Until finally the cops got involved. Suddenly, they weren't seen as kids anymore (although they were), and they landed in the county lockup.

The kids I taught weren't locked up for life like the 109, but they might just as well have been, because no matter how long a kid spends in prison, it's a life sentence. Get put in jail and the door shuts on your life, on Life, and, just so you don't forget it, all day long you hear cell doors, hallway doors, bullpen doors slamming, clanking, shuttering shut. No child (take a long, hard look sometime at a 15 year old boy you know and tell me he's not a child) should be sentenced to live in the squalor only a prison can manufacture: the constant noise; the rancid smells; the aimless violence; the fear of always watching your back; the boredom of endless hours of Jerry Springer.

It's almost commonplace these days to say that if you lock kids up all they learn is more ways to do crime. But I don't think that's the worst of it. Lock kids up and they come out of prison carrying things even I, with my ten years of daily jail life, can't imagine. I'm not so much worried about what new criminal activity they might learn. What I worry about is all the new reasons they garner for doing more crime-- the renewed rage at themselves for being what they are and what they failed to be; at the families, communities, schools, churches, the country for letting them down and reinforcing their sense of worthlessness.

But shouldn't those 109 be held accountable? Shouldn't any criminal be made to take responsibility? Indeed. Ask any of my jailhouse students the same question and most would agree. But accountability doesn't mean punishment; it never has, except in the parlance of today's criminal justice system. It means not turning away from what you did and the consequences of your actions, but looking at it square on and learning a better way of living.

There are many ways to do this in jail. Restorative justice programs are one very effective approach, tough love so tough that not many adults I know outside of prison could stand up against that personal scrutiny. Sunny Schwartz shows that in her spunky, powerful book, Dreams from the Monster Factory, which describes her restorative justice work with long-term California inmates. In the county jail where I worked some of my students went through a similar victims' awareness program, and even the most hard-edged guys who swore nothing would ever or could ever touch them were moved.

Because accountability is based on the premise that people can and do evolve. One of the most moving of the legal briefs in support of the petitioners in the upcoming Supreme Court hearing was filed by eight "former juvenile offenders" whose life stories argue for not shutting off the possibility of such transformation.

Some had been convicted of very serious crimes that could have resulted in sentencings similar to the 109 had circumstances been different. Instead, they were given the opportunity to amend their lives and consequently made "significant contributions to their communities." The eight include a Broadway actor; a former United States senator; a Latino poet and community activist; a defense attorney; a software executive; and a UNICEF children's advocate.

The changes made by the young men I worked with might not seem as noteworthy, but to them they were seismic. Anthony, while serving time for a robbery, got his GED. When he was released he started slowly to turn his life around with the help of our school social worker. He got a menial job, then went to college part time. Eventually, supporting himself the whole time, living in SROs in the Bronx, he received his social work degree and now works with "at-risk" kids.

For Alex, the process was more difficult. After multiple arrests he knew he had to do something different or he would end up a lifer or dead on the street. He made the toughest decision of his 17 years: to leave the only neighborhood he'd ever known for a lonely, anonymous life (or so he felt) on the West Coast with an uncle he barely knew. He made the move, got a hospital custodial job and then started to work towards his dream of being a marine biologist. For many of my other students the changes were smaller-- the decision to join Job Corps; to get into rehab; to contact a father not spoken to for years. Nevertheless they were still positive steps.

Each of these stories is a rebuke to laws that would lock kids up for life without parole. It's vital that accounts like these be heard so that the American people realize that the "super-predators" they've been taught to fear are first and foremost children; and so that the nine justices see to it that no more children are denied the right to change and are protected against the "cruel and unusual punishment" of a slow death in prison.