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Giving jailed juveniles a second chance at life

Mar 15, 2012, Marian Wright Edelman, Washington Post

Edwin Desamour was driving with his 3-year-old son in their Philadelphia neighborhood recently when the little boy looked up and said, “Daddy, look at the moon! I want to go there!” So this father did what many parents would: He bought his son books on science and space voyages and encouraged him to believe that his dreams can come true.

Edwin’s son has been blessed with a vastly different childhood than Edwin had. Edwin grew up poor in a violent neighborhood in Philadelphia, surrounded by drugs, guns and crime. At age 16 he was convicted of a homicide. The time he spent with his father as a teenager came when they were assigned to the same cellblock in prison.

Edwin was caught up in dangerous surroundings he didn’t choose, and his violent actions as an adolescent resulted in terrible loss. But he matured in prison and became determined to earn parole so he could return to his old neighborhood and make a difference in the lives of other young men. In 2007 Edwin founded Men in Motion in the Community, an organization that provides positive role models for at-risk youths. It teaches them that there are consequences to their actions, and it helps youths avoid violence.

Edwin was lucky. He had an opportunity to demonstrate that he had changed and to earn release from prison on parole. But other youths who committed similar crimes have been sentenced to die in prison — including 79 who were only 13 or 14 years old when arrested, almost 70 percent of whom are children of color. Next week, the Supreme Court will hear argument about whether young people should have the chance to prove that they have changed the way Edwin did and earn eventual release from prison. In the cases of Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, both of whom were 14 when they were arrested, the court will decide whether it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence children to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

The court has an important opportunity to affirm what it has already recognized in declaring the death penalty for juveniles unconstitutional (Roper v. Simmons) and in invalidating the life-without-parole sentence for non-homicide crimes committed by juveniles (Graham v. Florida): Sentencing a young person to life without the possibility of parole is the same thing as sentencing that young person to die in prison — and such a sentence is too harsh for juveniles, whose brains are not fully formed until well past adolescence and who lack the maturity and impulse control of adults.

“When I work with kids, I see it all the time,” Edwin says. “They talk about the revenge that they hope would prove their manhood, or a violent act that they hope will make them safe. When I ask them, ‘What happens after that?’ they’re dumbfounded. They can’t think past the immediate impulse and process consequences.” Scientists confirm what parents already know: Teenage brains are biologically different from adult brains and lack the ability to exercise mature judgment, especially when young people find themselves in violent and stressful environments.

Five years ago, the Children’s Defense Fund launched the Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign to focus attention on the national crisis that leaves a black boy born in 2001 with a one-in-three chance of going to prison in his lifetime and a Latino boy a one-in-six risk of the same fate. The pipeline is fueled by racial disparities, pervasive poverty, trauma, inadequate physical and mental health care, gaps in early childhood development, disparate educational opportunities, chronic abuse and neglect, and overburdened and ineffective juvenile justice systems. Edwin Desamour faced these overwhelming odds, but he was able to earn a second chance to escape the pipeline. Other children have never been given that chance.

All children are God’s children. But too many children, especially those of color, find themselves in dangerous circumstances they can neither escape nor successfully navigate. Sentencing children to die in prison is an expression of hopelessness. The Supreme Court should recognize what Edwin’s story so powerfully demonstrates: These young people have a great capacity for change and growth, and it is excessive and unfair to make a final judgment that children who commit even the most serious crimes must be forever confined to prison, with no hope of demonstrating reform or achieving release. Science tells us that children’s brains will change and mature. Our hearts tell us all children deserve the chance to grow up and give back.

 

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