Should juveniles be sentenced to life in prison without parole?

By Chris Singer on October 28, 2009

Last evening I read an article on the Lansing State Journal website, “Jury convicts teenager of homeless killings.” According to the article, Thomas McCloud, a 15-year old, was convicted for the murder of two homeless men in Pontiac, Michigan.

I remember when this story broke late last year and was horrified by what happened. Murder and other crimes against the homeless have consistently been on the rise across the nation for several years now. Many states have introduced legislation making a crime committed against the homeless a hate crime. Maryland passed this legislation earlier in the summer. I would completely support such legislation at the city, county, or state level.

Although I was outraged at the crime committed by this young man (and the other young man allegedly involved, another 15-year-old named Dontez Tillman), I get no solace from the fact that a 15-year-old is going to spend the rest of his life in prison without parole. To me, this is a lose-lose situation for all parties involved.

For me, reading this story made me think about the situation of Efren Paredes Jr. In 1989, Efren, a 15-year-old Honors student, was convicted for the murder of his boss, Rick Tetzlaff. For twenty years, Efren (now 36) has maintained his innocence. In fact, according to Paredes, “If they said they would release me tomorrow if I would plead guilty, I wouldn’t do it.”

I learned about Efren’s case several years ago at a NorthStar Center presentation. After watching the presentation, I could not fathom how a jury could have found Efren guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This was not an open-and-shut sort of case despite what the police and prosecutor would have you believe. The media frenzy surrounding this case was also a huge issue. In my opinion, Efren was convicted of the crime in the press before it even made it to trial. (* You can judge for yourself. Watch the presentation at Efren’s website)

No matter where you stand on these issues and which side you support, I think a community discussion has to begin about the morality of sending youth to prison for the rest of their lives without hope for parole. According to Amnesty International, “The United States is the only country in the world that does not comply with the norm against imposing life-without-parole sentences on juveniles.” The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and Declaration for Children’s Rights condemns life  imprisonment of children. The United States signed the convention in 1995 but has not ratified it.

In the United States, states are left to decide how they wish to imprison and sentence juveniles. Currently, there are 26 states with statutes imposing life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. Again, Amnesty International has some interesting statistics:

  • A survey found that 59% of the convictions were for first time offenders.
  • Black children are sentenced to LWOP ten times more often than white children.
  • An estimated 26% of child offenders were convicted of “felony murder”, which holds thatanyone involved in the commission of a serious crime during which someone is killed is also guilty of murder, even if he or she did not personally or directly cause the death.
  • The 26 states with mandatory LWOP sentencing account for the overwhelming majority of child LWOP cases.

Read Amnesty’s entire report here.

I know it’s politically safe to be tough on crime, but what does it say about us as a society when we sit in our churches each Sunday talking about topics like forgiveness, and then Monday comes and we call sentencing youth to prison for life with no chance of parole an act of justice. There’s a disconnect here that needs to be discussed. Let’s start the discussion today. Write back with your comments and questions.