Teens' life sentences likely began much earlier

Kathy Silverberg
Published: Friday, August 14, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.

The faces that stared back at me when I picked up my Sunday newspaper off the driveway this week made my heart ache. In fact, the article that accompanied the photos of teenagers who will be spending the rest of their lives in prison was so disturbing that it haunted me for the rest of the day.

But my discomfort is of little significance when compared with the pain these young people inflicted on their victims or the sadness their families must feel at knowing their children will never come home or, above all, the despair of facing a life behind bars. There are no winners in this story of a state that sentences more juveniles to life without parole — for crimes other than murder — than all the other states combined.

An argument can be made that these young people — six of them were under 15 years old when they committed their crimes — must be imprisoned to protect society. Their crimes are not insignificant. In many cases, they involved violence, and most of those sentenced to life were repeat offenders.

Further, the case for rehabilitation weakens when recidivism statistics are examined. A 1996 study by Northeastern University researcher Donna Bishop found that juvenile offenders in Florida, once they are sentenced in the adult system, are more likely to continue a life of crime.

But as unsettling as the practice of sending children to prison for the rest of their lives appears to be, the real tragedy likely began many years before they even considered breaking the law. It probably began at the beginning, when the circumstances of their birth dramatically reduced their chances for a successful life.

And as much as there appears to be a need to reform the sentencing procedures for juvenile offenders, there is a far greater need to address the factors that severely limit the opportunities for too many children.

Study after study has pointed to the correlation between poverty and achievement, to the need for intervention even before a child is born to assure a safe, healthy environment.

Yet strained resources on every level, from the home to the halls of government, limit the opportunities for children.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 20th annual Kids Count report, released earlier this year, made the case in clear terms: “Overwhelming research finds that growing up in poverty — especially deep and/or sustained poverty, particularly in the first years of life — has crippling and lifelong consequences.” In Florida, one child in five is born into poverty.

The Kids Count report pointed out that poor children who lack enrichment opportunities “are many times more likely than other children to become ensnared in the justice system and less likely to find stable employment or form durable families.” Thus the cycle of poverty continues.

Research by the Educational Testing Service illustrates the learning gap that occurs early on and favors children from more privileged households. By age 4, a child whose parents are professionals hears some 20 million more words than a child in a working-class family, and about 35 million more words than children who grow up in poverty.

A conference in 2005 sponsored by the Legal Momentum’s Family Initiative and the MIT Workplace Center attempted to quantify the value of investing in early childhood education. It found that every $1 invested in quality early child care and education returns $13 to public coffers, based on savings in social services and criminal justice expenses as well as increased tax collections from now-productive adults.

If there is any question about the altruistic reasons to pull children out of poverty, the economics should carry the day.

The American dream is built on a belief that through hard work and self-sacrifice, anyone can rise to the highest levels in this democratic system. But how many more dreams could come true, how many more productive Americans could be out there making a difference in the world, how many more parents could be providing for their families, if all children were given a fair chance to succeed.

More than 100 years ago, Mark Twain saw the value of educating young people. He wrote:

“When I was a boy on the Mississippi River there was a proposition in a township there to discontinue public schools because they were too expensive. An old farmer spoke up and said if they stopped building the schools they would not save anything, because every time a school was closed a jail had to be built.”

Perhaps the time has come to build fewer jails.

Kathy Silverberg is the former publisher of the Herald-Tribune’s southern editions. E-mail: [email protected]

This story appeared in print on page A10