Children Behind Bars for Life: A New Report Focuses on the Youngest Victims of Mandatory Sentencing

By Jung, Alex | Colorlines Magazine, May-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Children Behind Bars for Life: A New Report Focuses on the Youngest Victims of Mandatory Sentencing


Jung, Alex, Colorlines Magazine


PRISON CLOTHING WAS NOT MADE to fit 13-year-old bodies. The shirt drapes as it would on a wire hanger, and the pants engulf the legs as they would on a clown, shredded at the bottom to make room for the feet. The notion of incarcerating children is, like the clothing, ill-fitting and macabre, a twisted joke the criminal justice system plays on those who should be playing dress-up in spacesuits or scrubs.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Such photos are part of a new report issued by the Equal Justice Initiative, an advocacy organization, which found that there are at least 2,225 children under the age of 18 serving life sentences in U.S. prisons; almost two-thirds of them are children of color. The youngest was sentenced at the age of 13. "About 75 percent were sentenced under mandatory sentencing statutes," said Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, adding that this happened as a result of state and federal "tough on crime" legislation that has increasingly treated children as if they were adults.

The report focuses specifically on 73 children who are 13 and 14 years old and serving life sentences. Stevenson said they chose that age group because the legal system makes distinctions for children under the age of 14. It is not a philosophical argument but a pragmatic, albeit questionable, one. "You have to create priorities and strategies that build on things," explained Stevenson. "When it comes to reforming the criminal justice system, incrementalism is a necessary strategy."

In almost all cases, condemnation to prison for the children featured in this report was an instance of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. Their backgrounds share familiar struggles: poverty, physical abuse, sexual abuse and drug-addled caregivers. …

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