Moral and ethical perspectives of juvenile life without parole
April 23, 2012 2 Comments
The sentencing of juveniles to life without parole has become an all too common practice in the United States. Approximately 38 people, sentenced under the age of 18, in America are serving such a sentence in the federal system. The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth reports that there are 2,570 juveniles serving life without parole sentences in various states throughout the country.
Seven states in the country prohibit the practice of sentencing children to life without parole. A number of additional states do not have any known individuals serving this sentence as juveniles or as adults charged and tried as juveniles.
The lack of consistency among states when it comes to this particular policy is disturbing enough. However, the issue becomes even more complex when analyzed from various moral and ethical perspectives. For instance, it is difficult to find a religion that has expressed a policy position on the practice of sentencing children and teens to life without parole. Despite this, a substantial number of churches and faith-based organizations support and help to advocate for initiatives to end this practice. Policy positions, or lack thereof, appear to be nothing more than a formality.
From the Catholic and Episcopal perspectives, for example, there is little justification (if any) for sentences of life without parole. This is especially true when considering children. The Venerable William C. Parnell of the Episcopal Diocese of New York explained in an email that the Diocesan Convention suggested that an alternate approach to concepts like crime and punishment should be “designed to rehabilitate, wherever possible, and to provide human control in other cases”. This statement, made in 1975, did not address juveniles specifically, but has serious implications for the practice of sentencing children to life without parole.
An article published in U.S. Catholic addressed the topic of juvenile life without parole, describing the arguments against these sentences being similar to those offered when the morality and constitutionality of the death sentence was examined in reference to minors. The Supreme Court eliminated the death penalty when it comes to children and teens in 2005. Later, the sentencing of juveniles for nonhomicide crimes was banished as well. The Supreme Court is currently considering arguments against life without parole for homicide crimes.
The article also touches on the fact that life without parole sentences do not accomplish anything meaningful. In reference to those who receive such sentences, the author wrote that it takes away the juvenile’s “chance at being a member of society, destroys their family, and doesn’t end the pain suffered by the victims.” The author acknowledged that in some situations the use of lifetime imprisonment might be used for a more utilitarian purpose, such as the common good. However, it still removes “any chance for the offender to be rehabilitated and only serves as retribution, not justice.”
The article goes on to state the following:
From a Catholic perspective, there seems to be little justification for life without the possibility of parole. Jesus’ death on the cross ensures that no matter what sin we commit, there’s always a chance for redemption and God’s forgiveness. That should especially hold true for our children, who have so many years ahead of them to learn from their mistakes, seek reconciliation, and become valued members of society.
Recognizing that many religious and faith-based organizations are advocating against this practice as well as reform of the system that allows this kind of sentencing for juvenile offenders, the moral and ethical aspects of the argument become clearer. A life without parole sentence serves no redemptive purpose.
James Tramel knows this as well as anyone. At the age of 17, Tramel was sentenced to 15 years to life for his involvement in a homicide crime. He received parole after serving 21 years. He is now an Episcopal priest and advocates for the end of life without parole sentences for minors.
In 2007, Tramel testified before the Public Safety Committee of the California State Senate. He described his experiences in the California prison system, explaining that “parole is an exceptionally rare occurrence for anyone serving an indeterminate sentence in California.” He went on to state, “What I would like for this committee to have is the perspective of a juvenile who went to prison with a glimmer of hope, however fleeting and distant, of the possibility of being reconciled with the community.”
Tramel credited this small sliver of hope with his desire to overcome the obstacles to reform associated with the prison environments . “The pressure on a juvenile in prison to conform to the gang culture, and to the currency of violence, is immense,” he explained. He was not speaking just of younger juveniles either, as he was a much older teen when he was sentenced to prison.
He explained the difference between having some hope and no hope:
During my incarceration I met many young men serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole. At a visceral level, the circumstances of their crimes made me shudder at the idea of their release from prison. There are certainly people who felt that way about me. These life without possibility of parole inmates, however, sometimes follow a different course than those serving indeterminate sentences. Without the hope of any future beyond prison they can die a moral death. They feel they have nothing to lose by degenerating into violent predators within the prison. They can be a dangerous management problem for the correctional officers and an unpredictable threat to other inmates. The basic difference in overall conduct is the presence or absence of hope.
What does the seeking of a life without parole sentence say about those who take action that causes such an outcome? Such as State Attorney Angela Corey in Jacksonville, Florida? Corey and her family have long attended the St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Florida. What does her church think about her having exposed a 12 year old child – Cristian Fernandez – to the mandatory sentence of life without parole? Is there any justification for charging a juvenile in a way that ultimately results in a life without parole sentence? Even if the prosecutor insists they had every intention of reaching a plea deal? Overcharging to obtain a plea deal is regarded among the legal profession as unethical, even in reference to adults.
And how moral is overcharging a child with the intention of coercing them into a plea deal anyway? Perhaps it is legal, but few would argue it is moral.
Ordinarily a prosecutor’s faith might not even factor into the equation, but in Corey’s case her religion is a prominent feature of her career and persona. Corey not only displays a large cross as an indicator of her faith for all to see, but she describes the activity of prayer in her press conferences and releases. She did this in Cristian’s case and also in the Trayvon Martin case.
But what about the separation of church and state? Is it hypocritical to wear a cross and profess a faith that expressly values redemption over retribution? Corey’s approach to prosecution is not aligned with the core values of her own faith – values such as forgiveness, redemption, compassion, and love. Granted, punishment is a necessary component of the criminal justice system, but as evidenced by empirical research and faith-based advocacy it appears that punishment should not exceed efforts to rehabilitate. This is especially true if rehabilitation is possible. We know, for example, that psychologists deemed Cristian Fernandez amenable to rehabilitation. What about other juveniles serving life without parole sentences? Did psychologists say the same about them? Were they even asked?
It is undeniable that the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole is immoral. The same is true for taking any action that exposes a youth to such a sentence, especially when there are other options available. It violates the basic fundamental principles associated with ethics.
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, once said that “dangerous consequences will follow when politicians and rulers forget moral principles. Whether we believe in God or karma, ethics is the foundation of every religion.”
What more is a State Attorney or any other elected official but a politician? When seeking justice, do these individuals have any moral or ethical obligations? I think they do. I think we all do.