Life Without Parole For Kids?
Forget about the Capitol Riot. Barbarism is on the right wing of the court.
Earlier this week, I caught wind of a story about a Supreme Court case where the SCOTUS actually made it easier to sentence kids to life in prison without parole. I have a real problem with putting kids in prison altogether, but life without parole is beyond the pale.
I couldn’t find the original article that caught my eye the other day, but I found another one, and it might have been the same one. Austin Sarat wrote “The Supreme Court is wrong. Even children who kill don’t deserve life without parole.” for USA Today which recites many of the same facts that I’ve seen before in support of ending life without parole for kids. He noted a particularly interesting quote from Brett Kavanaugh in the opinion:
Discretionary sentencing allows the sentencer to consider the defendant’s youth, and thereby helps ensure that life-without-parole sentences are imposed only in cases where that sentence is appropriate in light of the defendant’s age.
Remember, this is the same judge that anti-abortion activists supported because life is “sacred”, but life without parole for kids is cool just so long as you consider the kid’s age before you send him up the river without a paddle. Kavanaugh, the champion of freedom and justice thinks it’s OK to send kids to prison. I have real doubts that any kid should ever be put in prison. I’ve seen stories in the news that clearly show it’s traumatic to put kids in a jail cell as punishment.
I finally found the other article I read, “Brett Kavanaugh’s Opinion Restoring Juvenile Life Without Parole Is Dishonest and Barbaric”, on Slate. Here is the relevant passage that got my attention:
In the final portion of her dissent, Sotomayor recounted the story of the defendant in this case, Brett Jones, to show how “many aspects of Jones’ crime seem to epitomize unfortunate yet transient immaturity.” Jones was “the victim of violence and neglect that he was too young to escape.” His biological father was an alcoholic who physically abused his mother, who had severe mental health problems. His stepfather abused him, too, using “belts, switches, and a paddle.” He openly expressed his hatred for Jones. When Jones moved to Mississippi to live with his grandparents, he abruptly lost access to medication he took for mental health issues, including hallucinations and self-harm. Jones’ grandfather beat him, as well. One day in 2004, when Jones’ grandfather tried to hit him, Jones stabbed him repeatedly, killing him. He had turned 15 just 23 days earlier. Jones tried to save his grandfather with CPR but failed. After making minimal efforts to conceal the crime, he confessed to the police.
I’m sure there are some conservatives out there who believe that kids should have an incentive to behave. Oh, you mean like BF Skinner and the Skinner Box? That kind of incentive? Or do you mean the other kind, where kids learn violence from the environment they live in? The USA Today article notes that the vast majority of kids in prison for life without parole witnessed violence in their home or neighborhood and that they had been themselves victims of physical abuse. Kids learn how not to manage their impulses from adults who can’t manage their own impulses. Yeah, the convicted kid, Brett Jones lived in that kind of environment.
This is what I think when I see a kid getting spanked in public by their parents. Then I see a parent who cannot restrain their impulses and then I think, “God help that kid when they get home.” Kids who land in prison often come from an authoritarian environment, one filled with adults who think that “you have to beat incentive into the kids”. No, the incentive is already there. It was always there. The skills, maybe not.
You know those things we find so attractive about kids? Those cute faces? Those big eyes. I always fall for those big eyes. Those cute sounds? That’s all biology’s message saying (with apologies to Jewel), “please take care of me, I’m sensitive and I’d like to stay that way”. Those cute attributes are built into kids to ensure their survival, and they usually work unless one or both parents have unresolved issues or lacks parenting skills.
One reason I don’t read the local news is too many stories of people killing kids, usually parents. Parents abuse their kids because they have unresolved conflicts of their own with their own, often long-dead parents. And I can’t recall any parent ever getting life without parole for killing their kid. But the Supreme Court thinks that life without parole is appropriate for a 15-year-old kid who killed his abusive grandparent. I guess the courts find empathy for the parents and not the kids.
I’m a father of two kids. I had to read up on child development. I learned how to deal with the terrible twos. I learned that kids do what parents do. If you’re bossy, your kids will be bossy. If you pick your nose, your kids will pick their nose, and they won’t stop even if you punish them for it. If your nose is in a book, they will be reading, too. If you spend your time nursing a beer every night, they are more likely to do the same thing when you’re not looking. And if you have impulse control problems, like you go ballistic often in response to their behavior, kids will follow you and do the same thing. In fact, most tests of will between kids and adults are really just kids copying what the adults do.
This kind of reasoning seems lost on the court. Kids can be rehabilitated in 99% of the cases because they are hardwired to do what they see other adults doing. All we need to do is be the people we want them to be, around them. Maybe there are a few kids in prison who can’t be rehabilitated, but that’s because they’ve been abused far beyond our capacity to help. And those extreme cases bring to mind an old song, “Only A Lad” by Oingo Boingo. That song was released just as Ronald Reagan started to work his black magic on this country. I clearly recall a verse of the lyrics to the song:
(He’s only a lad) You really can’t blame him
(Only a lad) Society made him
(Only a lad) He’s our responsibility
Oh, oh, whoa whoa
(Only a lad) He really couldn’t help it
(Only a lad) He didn’t want to do it
(Only a lad) He’s underprivileged and abused
Perhaps a little bit confused
That was our mindset back then. I can remember myself wanting criminals who committed heinous crimes to be executed. I’m not that way now. I’ve learned a few things along the way. I’ve learned that there is much we can do to prevent or disable the schools to prison pipeline. We can learn how to raise human beings. We can learn that kids present challenging behavior when they need help solving problems they encounter as they grow up.
Life in prison without parole is barbaric even for adults. A life sentence assumes no hope of rehabilitation. But what I learned about kids in books like “Raising Human Beings” and “The Explosive Child” by Dr. Ross W. Greene, tells me that for sure, kids can be rehabilitated. Dr. Greene’s methods have been field-tested in prisons and detention centers for decades with a growing body of evidence and literature to show that “kids would do better if they could”, and that this isn’t about incentive. This is about skills. Given the skills, kids will always do better. See short video on same here. Apparently, this Supreme Court is unaware of or chooses to ignore information that would give kids a better life.
So often, I see people in life, acting like they have to give others incentive to do better, usually negative incentives, without consideration of the motivation that is already there, or any lack of skills. I think this way, not just about kids, I think this way about everyone. I remind myself that kids are always doing the best they can and that they are always motivated to do better. I see that in my own kids every day. I see that in everyone I am in contact with every day.
This Supreme Court acted on the belief that making punishment more severe would deter kids from doing bad, like murder. In the case of Brett Jones, who was 15 when he murdered his abusive grandfather during a heated argument about Jones’ girlfriend, the courts must have expected him to have read the case law. The Justices must have believed that Jones would have acted differently, in the heat of the moment, knowing that he would have been sentenced to life without parole. That kind of thinking on the part of six Supreme Court Justices shows a very clear and willful ignorance of humanity, and their barbarism.