Just like the death penalty, sentencing kids to die in prison is cruel and unusual

Feb. 25, 2019

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to sentence children to death. (Better late than never!) The decision cited research showing that human brains continue to grow and aren’t fully formed until people are in their early 20s, and that our character and ability to make reasoned decisions is still developing.

Given that, it’s unbelievable that North Carolina, and 28 other states, continue to impose a punishment almost as harsh on kids — life with no possibility of parole. Think about that: Still today, a 13-year-old can be declared “irredeemable” and sent to prison with no chance of ever getting out.

Since the sentence went on the books in 1994, 94 kids 13 to 17 have been sentenced to life without parole in North Carolina — and 86 of them were children of color. Apparently, this is a punishment we reserve almost exclusively for non-white kids. Many of them were not even the main culprit in the crime for which they were convicted. And as with the people on N.C.’s death row, the vast majority of them were sentenced in the 1990s, when we had very different ideas about justice.

According to a new report from Duke Law School, which delves into how juvenile life without parole is used in North Carolina, the cases are as riddled with unfairness and flimsy evidence as our death row cases. Consider this example:

In 1995, at age 16, Derrick McRae was accused of murder in Richmond County. McRae is black. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime and eyewitness accounts were mixed. At his first trial, the jury hung with eight jurors arguing for acquittal. Before his second trial, the prosecutor offered him a deal: If he pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter, he would be out of prison in 13 months. McRae refused, claiming innocence.

At his second trial in 1998, the evidence against him came largely from a co-defendant and a jailhouse informant. In his closing argument, the prosecutor commented on McRae’s “uncaring, unfeeling” demeanor in court. The jury didn’t know that McRae was schizophrenic and, before the trial, had been denied his medication. They convicted him of first-degree murder, which led to an automatic sentence of life without parole.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court stepped in again. In 2012, the court ruled that children could not receive automatic life without parole sentences. Thus, children serving life without parole in N.C. were entitled to new hearings to determine whether they were permanently irredeemable or should receive new sentences with the possibility of parole.

In 2017, McCrae had his hearing and is now eligible for parole in 2021.

But seven years after the Supreme Court ruling, 46 kids — almost half — still haven’t had their hearings. And life without parole remains a possible sentence for kids as young as 13.

Just like the death penalty, sentencing kids to die in prison is barbaric and excessive. As Bryan Stevenson says so eloquently:

Life without parole is supposed to be a judgment that says this person is beyond hope, beyond redemption, beyond rehabilitation, has been given opportunities to change and hasn’t changed… You can never say that about a child.

Read an op-ed by one of the study’s authors, Duke Law Professor Brandon Garrett.