Sample Capstone Project on Life Sentence Without Parole For Juveniles

“Taking a life does not have to be through killing, all actions that minimize the quality of life of an individual without an opportunity for improvement constitutes a denial of the right to live”.

Introduction

Trial of juveniles brings about a myriad debates as to whether some of the sentences are unconstitutional. Subjection of juveniles to harsh sentences has been of particular concern. While all states have abolished death sentences for juveniles, 42 states still allow for the juveniles to be subjected to life in prison without an opportunity for parole. Of these 42 states, 38 give this sentence for non-homicide related crimes, resulting in the imprisonment of juveniles as young as 14 years of age[1]. Some of the states however require that the juvenile has to be at least 15 or 16 years of age. This brings to mind the question as to whether it is right or wrong to subject a juvenile to life in prison without a chance for parole. While it may be constitutionally right based on the degree of intensity of the crime committed, it may not be ethically justified. There is therefore need for this concept to be discussed with specific focus on the ethical concerns raised through life imprisonment of children. The present study argues that life sentence without parole is not a fair sentence for children as it denies them an opportunity to develop in maturity.

Research questions

The main objective of the research is to determine whether it is fair for juveniles to be subjected to life imprisonment without parole. To achieve this objective, the following questions will guide the study.

  • What crimes can make a juvenile be liable for life imprisonment without an opportunity for parole?
  • What are the major concerns surrounding life sentencing for juveniles?
  • Can life in prison without support be said to be a fair judgment?

The research hypotheses include:

H1: Serious crimes such as homicide warrant life sentencing among juveniles.

H2: Juveniles are immature and have underdeveloped character hence should not be tried as adults

H3:Life imprisonment without parole is not a fair judgment for juveniles.

Literature Review

The 8th constitutional amendment banned the sentencing of juveniles below certain ages to life imprisonment without parole. However, this has not been a hindrance to various states which still uphold this sentence as constitutional. In fact, several cases have been handled even after the 8th amendment in which the juvenile subjects were sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. With a decline in the age of offenders, the number of juveniles to whom this sentence was meted reduces. The implication is that the seriousness of juvenile crimes increases with an increase in their ages. Most of the juveniles who received the life sentence without a possibility of parole committed sexual battery crimes to vulnerable victims. For instance, one of the juveniles that has been subjected to this sentence sexually assaulted a 72 year old woman[2].  In the case of Graham v Florida, the juvenile was subjected to this maximum punishment for armed robbery and assault[3]. Despite their crimes being serious, subjecting juveniles to harsh sentences such as life imprisonment still raises concerns about the society’s ethical standing. A major issue that has been associated with juvenile life without parole sentences is that of cardinal proportionality, the argument that juveniles are different from adults and should not therefore be subjected to sentences meant for adults. Although this argument has been widespread, the differences between juveniles and adults are never considered in a court of law[4]. The rationale for this has been that all age differences are effectively included in every law that leads to sentencing and thus the judges decisions, when based on the provisions of the state and national laws, effectively encapsulates the aspect of being a juvenile[5]. This makes the concept of life sentence without parole for juveniles even more desirous of intensive research.  The application of the Life without a possibility of parole to the juvenile system is based on the proposition that since this sentence is retributive to a significant extent, it is suitable for achieving the goals of the federal correction system[6]. The said goal is to be retributive in nature towards the prevention of crime. Although this is a just argument, it effectively draws the thought as to what outcomes are desirable for retribution. This is to say that change is only as significant as it impacts on the society. Individual changes in the juveniles cannot be felt by the society once they have been sentenced to life imprisonment. The complete incapacitation of offenders makes it possible for the justice system to prevent further crimes[7]. However, the consideration of differences between the juvenile offenders and the adults and the impacts that life sentence could have on their well being is ignored.

While the proponents of life sentence without parole for juveniles focus on its retributive effect and  ability to incapacitate offenders, the opponents have developed arguments based on the differences between adults and juveniles and on the potential for reformation in juveniles. According to Antes[8] (2013), juveniles are psychologically different from adults and should therefore not be subjected to such harsh sentences as life imprisonment. The differences cited by this author include: immaturity, vulnerability to peer pressure, uninformed identity and physiological differences. These differences make life without parole an unethical sentence to be meted to juveniles since they are still in their developmental years and it would be unfair to deny them the opportunity to make life changes. The vulnerability of juveniles to peer influence is cited by Christensen[9] (2013) as being an important factor for the reform of juvenile offenders. By placing juveniles under life sentence without parole, the justice system thus does injustice since the children are not given an opportunity for reform. Moreover, since the juvenile offenders have evolving personalities, all they need is an opportunity for rehabilitation rather than excessive punishment[10]. This portrays a negative image of the society as well.

Being the most vulnerable in the society, children should be treated with care and shown love. Because of this, many countries in the world do not allow children to be placed behind bar on life imprisonment. This is because of the inhumane culture associated with it. Agyepong (2010) asserts that the move from early juvenile courts which were characterized by lack of standard procedures, indiscriminate sentencing and ill treatment of children to the more modern juvenile courts has contributed to the continued sentencing of juveniles to life imprisonment without parole. This is attributed to the politics of race that are currently associated with the juvenile justice system[11]. This claim could be further supported by the proposition made by Coleman and Coleman that the juvenile justice system is irreparable corruptible[12].

While the proposals have been made on the advantages and disadvantages of juvenile life sentence without parole, the decision as to whether it is really just or fair has still not been conclusive. However, from a comparison of various pieces of literature, it can be argued that this is an area that still warrants more research into.

Research Method

The present study was carried out based on a qualitative research approach. This design was chosen since it aims at the provision of mainly theoretical information that is descriptive in nature. Since the objective of the research requires mainly theoretical information, the approach was considered best. Moreover, qualitative research approach based on grounded theory is suitable for research such as this since it considers all aspects of the information required. The study adopted a secondary approach in that all the information used to make deductions was obtained from secondary sources. The search for relevant materials was carried out using a content based design whereby materials with content matching the research objective and questions were considered relevant. The dependent variable in the study was taken to be juvenile life sentence without parole while the key independent variable was the criminal activities that lead to life imprisonment of juveniles. The study took into consideration various ethical concerns in the use of secondary sources. For instance, only materials that are issues for public use were accessed to avoid violation of copyright laws. Moreover, the materials used were also cited appropriately to give due credit to the authors.

Findings and analysis

The key objective of the study was to determine whether it is fair to subject juveniles to life imprisonment without parole. From the review of relevant literature, the information obtain ascertains the fact that while the juvenile correction system aims at positive development, sentences such as life imprisonment without parole are unsuitable for children. This is based on the findings on the two variables concerned with the study. First, it has been confirmed that juveniles are subjected to life imprisonment without parole following participation in serious crimes such as armed robbery, battery and sexual assault. Ethical concerns however arise with respect to the justifiability of this sentence even in the case of such serious crimes. This is more so based on the arguments by opponents of life sentence without parole for juveniles.

The major concerns that have been raised in opposition of life sentence without parole include the differences between juveniles and adults and the need for an opportunity for rehabilitation by the children. It is argued that while life sentence without parole may be retributive as well as incapacitating to the offenders, it also abuses their autonomy as juveniles since the courts do not take into consideration the differences in the psychological capabilities between children and adults. Moreover, the courts, in meting out the life sentence judgment to children, fail to recognize the chances that those juvenile have for reform. They are thus alienated completely from the society. The sentencing of children to life imprisonment has been reported as being unethical and based on a corruptible court system that is characterized by racial profiling.

Based on these findings, it can be said that the influence of particular crimes on the subjection of juveniles to life sentences is minimal. This is based on the comparison of the different crimes that led to the incarceration of various juveniles. Other factors that also influence the possibility of being subjects to life imprisonment as a juvenile include racial politics and recidivism.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it can be said that the project has successfully achieved its major objective of determining whether life sentence without parole is a fair judgment for juveniles. By confirming that children are significantly different from adults, the paper argues therefore that based on these differences, juveniles should not be subjected to same sentences as adults when they commit crimes similar to those of adults. Moreover, life imprisonment is unfair in that it denies the juveniles an opportunity to reform yet they are highly capable of reforming. The findings of the study also support the hypotheses that juveniles are sentenced to life imprisonment for serious crimes such as homicide; children are immature and have underdeveloped character hence should not be tried as adults. The support to these two hypotheses led to the conclusion that life sentence without parole is an unfair judgment for juveniles. The main limitation that can be associated with this study is its narrow scope. It is therefore proposed that future studies should focus on other factors that have contributed to the continued use of the life sentence without parole by the juvenile justice system.

 

References

Agyepong, Tera. 2010. “Children left behind bars: Sullivan, Graham, and Juvenile life without parole sentences”. Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights 9, No. 1: 83 – 102.

Antes, Kelly. 2013. “Taking a life without taking a life: State v Ninham violates the Eighth Amendment by sentencing a 14 year old juvenile to life in prison without parole”. Criminal and Civil Confinement 39, 215-242.

Butler, Frank. 2010. “Extinguishing all hope: Life without parole for juveniles”. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 49, 273-292.

Christensen, Anna. 2013. “Rehabilitating Juvenile life without parole: An analysis of Miller v. Alabama”. The Circuit Paper 21, 132-140.

Coleman, Doriane and James Coleman. 2012. “Getting juvenile life without parole “Right” after Miller v. Alabama”. Duke Journal of Constitutional Law & Public Policy Special Issue 8, 61-77.

Makar, Scott. 2010. “Does sentencing a 13 year old offender to life without parole constitute “Cruel and unusual punishment”?” Congressional Digest Corp 13, No. 1 (January): 26-36.

Steinberg, Laurence and Elizabeth Scott. 2010. “Should juvenile offenders ever be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole?” Human Development 53, 52-54.

[1] Makar, Scott. 2010. “Does sentencing a 13 year old offender to life without parole constitute “Cruel and unusual punishment”?” Congressional Digest Corp 13, No. 1 (January): 26-36. p. 26.

[2] Makar, Scott. 2010. “Does sentencing a 13 year old offender to life without parole constitute “Cruel and unusual punishment”?” Congressional Digest Corp 13, No. 1 (January): 26-36. p. 26.

[3] Antes, Kelly. 2013. “Taking a life without taking a life: State v Ninham violates the Eighth Amendment by sentencing a 14 year old juvenile to life in prison without parole”. Criminal and Civil Confinement 39, 215-242. p. 222.

[4] Steinberg, Laurence and Elizabeth Scott. 2010. “Should juvenile offenders ever be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole?” Human Development 53, 52-54. p. 1.

[5] Makar, Scott. 2010. “Does sentencing a 13 year old offender to life without parole constitute “Cruel and unusual punishment”?” Congressional Digest Corp 13, No. 1 (January): 26-36. p. 27.

[6] Butler, Frank. 2010. “Extinguishing all hope: Life without parole for juveniles”. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation 49, 273-292. p. 276.

[7] Butler, Frank. 2010. “p. 275

[8] Antes, Kelly. 2013. pp. 225-227

[9] Christensen, Anna. 2013. “Rehabilitating Juvenile life without parole: An analysis of Miller v. Alabama”. The Circuit Paper 21, 132-140. p. 134.

[10] Christensen. 2013. p. 139

[11] Agyepong, Tera. 2010. “Children left behind bars: Sullivan, Graham, and Juvenile life without parole sentences”. Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights 9, No. 1: 83 – 102. pp. 85 – 86.

[12] Coleman, Doriane and James Coleman. 2012. “Getting juvenile life without parole “Right” after Miller v. Alabama”. Duke Journal of Constitutional Law & Public Policy Special Issue 8, 61-77. p. 61.