This week National Public Radio reported that, following a mass trial, Egypt sentenced a 3-year-old boy to life in prison in what is now being called a case of mistaken identity. It may surprise many of my readers to learn that sentencing children to prison for life is not only also practiced here in the United States, but that we lead the world in such sentences. Furthermore, when it comes to sending children to adult prison, my home state of Florida prosecutes and sentences more children as adults than all other states in the nation combined.
The issue of children in prison has been one that has interested me since my days as a law student. At that time the case of Lionel Tate, a 12-year-old black child here in Florida who was convicted of murder with a mandatory life sentence, was in the news. My interest in Lionel Tate’s case led me to a law journal article about children in prison by FSU Law Professor Paolo Annino. During my second year of law school I actually left City University of New York School of Law for two semesters to come to Florida State as a visiting student in order to work with Professor Annino, who remains in my life as a friend and mentor to this day. A few years ago PBS has made a documentary film called “15 to life” on Professor Annino’s work and research that was used to successfully argue before the United States Supreme Court that life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who commit crimes other than murder is unconstitutional.
My first job after graduating from law school was as a juvenile public defender. I spent 2 years defending children accused of crimes ranging from stealing cookies from school lunch lines to sex crimes and murder. I never got to represent the children accused of murder for very long because, regardless of age or their level of involvement, they were always removed to adult court almost instantly. Transferring a child to adult Court in Florida is not a decision made by the Judge after a hearing. Instead, it’s entirely up to the prosecutor and no judicial review is available. I often witnessed this authority being used to try to force children to plead guilty when the State’s case was weak. The threat was, fine, go to trial, but you’ll do it in adult court and risk prison rather than a juvenile facility if you do.
The United States Supreme Court has said that, for crimes other than murder, life without parole sentences for children are cruel and unusual and therefore unconstitutional. However, this doesn’t mean that children who have never killed anyone aren’t being sent to adult prison for life with no possibility for release. Understand, a murder charge doesn’t mean the child actually killed someone, just that they were part of a crime in which someone was killed. This is the felony murder rule, which has been severely limited, done away with, or ruled unconstitutional throughout much of the developed world. However, the felony murder rule remains in full force in the State of Florida and in force to varying degrees in 45 other states. If you are a child and you accompany an adult to commit a crime such as a burglary or to buy drugs, and that adult then kills someone, the child can be found to be as legally guilty of murder as the adult who pulled the trigger. A murder conviction in Florida carries with it a mandatory life sentence without parole. This means that children, often with no prior legal history, who have never actually killed anyone, are sent to adult prison with no possibility of ever leaving – an outcome that, according to Amnesty International, happens in no other nation in the world.
My experience working with juvenile defendants left me deeply impressed with the idea that juvenile crimes do not occur in a vacuum. I have yet to meet a child who committed a serious crime who was not also a victim of untreated trauma, abuse, or mental illness that was either untreated or inadequately treated. This harm is further compounded when you send a child to prison. Adult prisons are not equipped to handle the needs of children. Consider what happened to 13-year-old, Jessica Robinson, whose clemency petition I worked on with Professor Annino. Her story of abuse and neglect while in state custody was profiled by This American Life and is worth listening to. I, along with other law students, drafted and argued her clemency petition before then-governor Jeb Bush who denied the petition after a year.
It is fine and noble that we Americans condemn the human-rights violations of other nations such as the life sentence given to the Egyptian child, but we lack any real integrity or moral authority when we do. As a nation we have refused to give even the most basic legal protections to the status of childhood. Of the United Nations member states, only the United States and Somalia have refused to sign onto the Convention onto the Rights of the Child, the most widely accepted civil rights treaty in the world. Consider that for a moment, the legal rights of children in the State of Florida are among the lowest in the nation that brings up the rear in the developed world when it comes to providing legal protections for its children. Until we remedy this situation it will be very difficult for Floridians or Americans to speak with any authority or integrity to try to advance the lives of children in the larger world. It is long past time for us to get our own house in order.
In closing, I’m left with a questions, but no answers. America was once a place of renewal where we believed that people could evolve and change. What happened that made us give up on our children? When did we become the people of the developed world whose version of justice for children is only found in the parts of the world with the most questionable of human-rights practices? Lastly, how do we redeem ourselves from this place?