UPDATE 6/10/2015: Call the leaders of the House and Senate and the chairs of the Judiciary committees to ask them to support legislation banning life without parole sentences for children in Rhode Island. 

By Hillary Davis, policy associate

Is a child ever irredeemable? The United States thinks so – we’re the only country in the world that sentences children to life without parole, sending them prison as teens to grow old and die with no chance experiencing the world as adults. In Rhode Island, we’re trying to change that.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to impose mandatory life without parole sentences on juveniles. The psychological research is clear, the Court agreed, that juveniles have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, are more vulnerable to peer pressure, are less capable than adults of perceiving and comprehending long term consequences, and have much less control of their environment in ways that are transient and change with age. It was wrong, the Court decided, to automatically condemn youth to a life behind bars when their brains and their potential were still in flux.

Unfortunately, the decision stopped short at prohibiting all juvenile life without parole sentences; the law still allows life without parole to remain as a sentencing option for youth. As a result, many state laws view children as wholly responsible and understanding of their actions, and incapable of rehabilitation. For the moment, this includes Rhode Island.

Across the country, it is black youth who are disproportionately viewed as irredeemable. According to The Sentencing Project:

  • 42.4% of juvenile life without parole sentences are for black youth convicted of killing a white individual, even though that exact crime constitutes just 23.2% of juvenile arrests for murder.
  • Although 6.4% of juvenile arrests for murder include a white youth killing a black individual, just 3.6% of juvenile life without parole sentences involve that crime.

And a closer look by The Sentencing Project at juveniles serving life sentences shows even more consistent – and disturbing – trends. Of juveniles serving life sentences, 79% witnessed violence in their homes, and 47% were physically abused themselves. Fewer than 50% of the youth were in school at the time of their offense, but 40% of the youth had at one time been enrolled in special education classes.

Set up to fail by a society that is supposed to protect children, these youth are then viewed as hardened criminals incapable of contributing to society and are locked away to die – sometimes as young as thirteen or fourteen years old.

No youth are serving life without parole in Rhode Island, but the option remains on the books. Eliminating this sentencing option – as 12 other states and the District of Columbia have done – would mean that juveniles could still be given life sentences, but they would also be given the opportunity to come before the parole board at some point in their lives and prove their rehabilitation.

No child should be condemned to death in prison. To help end juvenile life without parole, contact your legislators and ask them to support H 5650 and S 0389.