On June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. Alabama banned mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole for juveniles. This is a major victory for children and for America.. Until last week, America was the only country in the world to routinely condemn children as young as 13 and 14 to die in prison. Now about 2,000 people who were sentenced to die in prison as juveniles have hope for a new hearing and a new sentence. While we are disappointed the court did not ban the practice outright, we must keep working toward justice for children and end the devastating Cradle to Prison Pipeline™ crisis that leads to marginalized lives, imprisonment, and premature death.
Bryan Stevenson, the brilliant founder and executive director of Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala. argued this case and the companion case Jackson v. Hobbs before the Supreme Court. Last month, he told participants at the Children's Defense Fund Freedom Schools® National Training session how he first became devoted to helping children in our adult justice system:
"I was working on a case when a grandmother called me, and this young boy had been arrested. This boy was living in a house where his mother had repeatedly been the victim of a lot of sexual assault, a lot of physical assault and domestic violence. And one day this boy's stepfather came home, and he just punched this boy's mother in the face. She fell on the floor unconscious, and the little boy tried to revive his mom and he couldn't do it, and she was bleeding. And we think he thought his mom was dead."
Bryan Stevenson continued with his harrowing true crime story: "And the man went into the bedroom and fell asleep, and after he did that, this little boy got up. He was about five feet tall, 14 years of age, under 100 pounds, and he waited until the man went into the bedroom and fell asleep . . . and he went over to the man's dresser, and he pulled out this man's handgun. And while the man was sleeping, this little boy walked over to him, and he pointed the gun at his head, and tragically at point-blank range, he pulled the trigger. The man was killed instantly.
"Now, this child had no prior criminal history. He had never been in trouble before. He was actually a good student, no juvenile adjudications, and probably would have been tried as a juvenile but for the fact that this man was a deputy sheriff. And because he was a deputy sheriff, the prosecutor insisted that this child be tried as an adult, and the judge certified him to stand trial as an adult and put him in the adult jail.
Once Stevenson saw the truth, he knew he could never be among those who stay silent. He also said: "Of all the problems that I'm talking about [with the treatment of juveniles in the adult justice system] – and I'm talking about race and I'm talking about poverty and I'm talking about abuse of power and I'm talking about misconduct – the problem that we have got to confront is hopelessness, the profound absence of hope that is represented by the death penalty, by life imprisonment without parole for children, by mass incarceration, by the way in which we are dealing with people . . . I'll tell you something about hope. Where there is hopelessness, there is always injustice, and you can never achieve justice without hopefulness."
The Supreme Court's historic decision to abolish mandatory life in prison without parole sentences for children reinforces the importance of never giving up hope as we all keep speaking out and fighting for justice for children. We still have so much work left to do to solve the crisis of children in adult prisons – but we now have a huge victory to spur us on and give us more hope. Bryan Stevenson helped changed the nation's course by saying something and doing something, and so must we.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.