Children Behind Bars for Life

A new report focuses on the youngest victims of mandatory sentencing.

By Alex Jung May 01, 2008

PRISON CLOTHING WAS NOT MADE to fit 13-year-old bodies. The shirt drapes as it would on a wire hanger, and the pants engulf the legs as they would on a clown, shredded at the bottom to make room for the feet. The notion of incarcerating children is, like the clothing, ill-fitting and macabre, a twisted joke the criminal justice system plays on those who should be playing dress-up in spacesuits or scrubs.

Such photos are part of a new report issued by the Equal Justice Initiative, an advocacy organization, which found that there are at least 2,225 children under the age of 18 serving life sentences in U.S. prisons; almost two-thirds of them are children of color. The youngest was sentenced at the age of 13. “About 75 percent were sentenced under mandatory sentencing statutes,” said Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, adding that this happened as a result of state and federal “tough on crime” legislation that has increasingly treated children as if they were adults.

The report focuses specifically on 73 children who are 13 and 14 years old and serving life sentences. Stevenson said they chose that age group because the legal system makes distinctions for children under the age of 14. It is not a philosophical argument but a pragmatic, albeit questionable, one. “You have to create priorities and strategies that build on things,” explained Stevenson. “When it comes to reforming the criminal justice system, incrementalism is a necessary strategy.”

In almost all cases, condemnation to prison for the children featured in this report was an instance of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. Their backgrounds share familiar struggles: poverty, physical abuse, sexual abuse and drug-addled caregivers. “Many of these kids have been as much victims as offenders,” said Stevenson. Ian Manuel, for example, has been in prison since the age of 13, spending much of it in solitary confinement. Before prison, he grew up in poverty and violence, joined a gang and, during a robbery attempt, shot a woman who survived and has since forgiven him. Manuel’s attorney told him to plead guilty to attempted felony murder to receive a 15-year sentence and never appealed or withdrew the plea.

With cases like these, the Equal Justice Initiative is sharpening a policy point also posited in the report “The Rest of Their Lives,” issued by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. All three groups argue that since children are not adults, the law should not treat their crimes as if they were. Advocates cite the U.S. Supreme Court case Roper v. Simmons, where the Court ruled that the death penalty for minors was unconstitutional on the grounds that “the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.” The Equal Justice Initiative is also arguing that life imprisonment for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment prohibiting “cruel and unusual punishments.” 

In terms of international standards of decency, the U.S. once again finds itself alone. In a United Nations resolution calling to abolish life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children, the vote came out 185 to 1—the U.S. was the lone dissenter. It is one of two countries (the other being Somalia) not to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which among other commitments to protecting persons under the age of 18, forbids life sentences without parole.

—Alex Jung