In December 2011, 12 jurors struggled to agree on a verdict for Brandon McInerney, charged with the shooting murder of Larry King; 14 and 15 years old, respectively in 2008, when the crime occurred at E.O. Green School in Oxnard. Some jurors said that they did not feel Brandon should be in adult court even though all of them agreed prior to the trial that they would be willing to convict a 14-year-old of an adult crime. The punishment: 25 years to life. Why certain jurors felt compassion for Brandon, why some were reluctant to convict him of first-degree murder, isn’t totally clear. The hung jury, however, was a prime example of the internal conflict that adults experience when trying to comprehend what to do with and how to treat juveniles who commit heinous crimes.
This week, that struggle came to a head in Washington, D.C. The Supreme Court of the United States, in a 6-3 ruling on Monday, Jan. 25, decided that its 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama barring life imprisonment without parole for juveniles must be applied to cases retroactively.
The Post-Conviction Justice Project puts into perspective our criminal justice system for juveniles serving life in prison:
“The United States is the only country in the world to sentence youth under 18 to life in prison with no opportunity for parole. According to a recent report by the University of San Francisco Center for Law and Global Justice, 2,387 juveniles nationwide are in prison for life. In California, 237 juveniles are currently serving life-without-parole sentences. Some were as young as 14 when they were convicted. The Human Rights Watch estimates that almost half of all juvenile offenders serving life sentences without parole in California did not actually commit murder themselves — instead, many provided support to murderers or helped them during the commission of their crime.”
President Barack Obama also announced on Monday a ban on solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in the federal prison system. Last August, Bill Sessa, spokesman for the California Division of Juvenile Justice was reported as saying that 35 out of 700 juvenile inmates are in an intensive behavior program in which each is confined to a single cell, and they spend an average of only 44 to 60 hours a week outside of the room.
It’s difficult to comprehend that these barbaric practices have gone on for so long in this country and especially in our so-called progressive state. With endless studies showing that the human brain is not fully formed until well into our 20s, it’s bewildering how little consideration we, as a society, have given these despondent children, even given their heinous crimes. We too often have looked right past their upbringing, their socioeconomic situations, their mental states at the times they committed these crimes and have treated them as nothing more than animals. It’s a sickening plight that has afflicted the powers that be who care so little about these kids. Thankfully, this week, some of that awful treatment has come to an end, though surely this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reforming the juvenile justice system. There is hope, however, for these once-wayward teens. And that’s all that matters.