Children in Prison: Do They Deserve Life Without Parole?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why does the criminal justice system put children in prison? Does imprisoning children violate the Eighth Amendment?

The Eighth Amendment protects prisoners from excessive punishment. But Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy says that this amendment is violated when children are imprisoned with life-without-parole sentences.

Decide if children in prison need to be protected by the Eighth Amendment below.

Extreme Punishments of Children

Stevenson argues that unjust punishments for children became the norm in the ‘90s. According to Stevenson, faulty predictions by criminologists led to excessive punishments for children, especially children of color. 

Stevenson notes that in the late ‘80s, criminologists predicted that “super predators”—violent children without remorse—would inundate the juvenile justice system. He argues that widespread panic consequently gripped the justice system, leading to increased prosecution of children in prison as adults and harsh punishments.

The Origins and Consequences of the Super Predator Theory

In 1995, Princeton political scientist John Dilulio Jr. penned “The Coming of the Super Predators,” an essay which sparked the super predator myth. In particular, Dilulio argued that increasing rates of youth violence—especially among Black males—were indicative of an imminent wave of “super predators” who killed gratuitously. Additionally, he cited anecdotal evidence that juvenile detention facilities seemed more dangerous, chock-full of remorseless young predators.

However, Dilulio’s theory was widely discredited, as the rates of youth crimes—including violent crimes—dropped significantly between 1995 and 1999. Indeed, Dilulio himself even renounced the theory, admitting that he wished he had instead focused on crime prevention

Yet, the damage of the super predator myth was lasting, as media embraced the alarmist theory, stoking the flames of public concern. Indeed, politicians such as Hillary Clinton announced their worry about these “super predators,” and nearly every state enacted laws making it easier to try children as adults and impose harsher punishments on them. Consequently, experts argue that our justice system still bears the legacy of this myth, as thousands of children remain in prison for sentences doled out under the influence of the super predator scare.  

According to Stevenson, the fear of super predators led to a troubling trend: Judges reactively condemn children to die in prison, robbing them of the potential for rehabilitation.

Trina Garnett illustrates this trend. The daughter of an abusive, alcoholic father, Garnett fled her home at a young age, sometimes staying with family and sometimes homeless. At age 14, as Stevenson recounts, Garnett climbed through the window into the house of some nearby boys, carrying a match to light her way. After accidentally dropping the match, however, she lit the house aflame, ultimately asphyxiating the two boys.

(Shortform note: The decision to run away in the wake of abuse is common, as researchers have long recognized that child abuse, and sexual abuse in particular, is the most frequent catalyst of youth runaways. Moreover, youth runaways demonstrate disproportionately high rates of incarceration; one 2016 study found that 44% of runaway and homeless youth had spent time in jail, prison, or a juvenile detention center.)

Despite her lack of intent, Garnett was tried as an adult and convicted of 2nd-degree murder. Moreover, due to uncompromising laws that don’t consider intent, the judge sentenced Garnett to life in prison, without the possibility of parole. 

(Shortform note: In addition to her lack of intent, the court-appointed psychiatrist found that Garnett suffered from intellectual disability, remarking that her answers to his questions made “no sense at all.” He further noted that she likewise suffered from schizophrenia, but neither of these diagnoses affected Garnett’s sentence.)

Challenging Extreme Punishments of Children

The US Supreme Court ruled that sentencing children to life without parole for non-homicide offenses is unconstitutional.

First, Stevenson notes that in 2005, the US Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to punish children with the death penalty, citing fundamental differences between children and adults that made children less culpable. In turn, this ruling provided a foundation for challenging juvenile life-without-parole sentences. To challenge such sentences, Stevenson had to argue they were cruel and unusual, thus violating the Eighth Amendment.

What Counts as Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

The prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments stems from the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution. However, because the authors of the Constitution didn’t explicitly define the phrase “cruel and unusual,” debate rages on regarding the proper interpretation and application of this injunction.

On the one hand, so-called originalists—those who hold that the Constitution should be interpreted according to its authors’ original intent—argue that punishment violates the Eighth Amendment if and only if it would be considered cruel and unusual by the prevailing standards in 1791, when the Constitution was written. Consequently, originalists such as Antonin Scalia argue that capital punishment is constitutionally permissible, as it was considered neither cruel nor unusual in 1791. 

By contrast, certain non-originalists hold that the Constitution derives meaning from our changing understanding of its terms. For example, in 1958’s Trop v. Dulles, Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled that the Eighth Amendment derives meaning from “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Consequently, non-originalists—like Stevenson himself—are more likely to argue that capital punishment violates the Eighth Amendment, since it violates our evolving understanding of decency.

According to Stevenson, such sentences were cruel because they didn’t consider children’s diminished culpability. He cited evidence from neurology, psychology, and sociology suggesting that children suffer from impaired judgment and are especially susceptible to negative influences. Moreover, he argued that increased dopamine receptivity leads to increased risk-taking around puberty, meaning they’re vulnerable to making poor decisions. These factors, Stevenson claims, reflect something we already recognize: Children lack the capacity for mature decisions that adults have

(Shortform note: In addition to Stevenson, philosophers generally agree that children are not fully morally responsible for their actions. According to some theorists, this is because children lack normative competency—in other words, they can’t grasp and apply moral norms to the same degree that adults can. Consequently, their diminished responsibility makes punitive punishment inappropriate.)

Because their judgment is impaired, children are less culpable for their actions. Consequently, Stevenson argued, sentencing them to life without parole constitutes cruel punishment. However, Stevenson notes that punishment must also be unusual to violate the Constitution; because 2,500 children in the US were sentenced to life without parole, it proved harder to argue that such punishments were unusual.

So, Stevenson focused on a narrower subset—the 200 children sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses, like Joe Sullivan. Despite initial resistance from lower courts, the US Supreme Court decided to review Stevenson’s case in 2009. Later, in 2010, they delivered their ruling in Graham v. Florida: It’s unconstitutional to sentence children who didn’t commit homicides to life without parole.

(Shortform note: Stevenson’s approach is consistent with incrementalism, the view that change is best effected via incremental steps. However, some have argued that while incrementalism accurately describes how change has occurred in US history, it’s not the best theory of how change should occur going forward. In particular, these researchers claim that because incrementalism yields only small progress, while accepting large injustices, it’s not justifiable by cost-benefit analyses.)

Likewise, in 2012’s Miller v. Alabama, the court found mandatory sentences of life without parole unconstitutional for child offenders. In turn, people like Trina Garnett became eligible for resentencing, no longer condemned to die in prison. According to Stevenson, the ruling provided hope that many children sentenced to life could re-enter society. (Shortform note: After Just Mercy’s publication in 2014, it still took five years for Garnett to be released—she was resentenced in 2018 and released in 2019.)

Children in Prison: Do They Deserve Life Without Parole?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Bryan Stevenson's "Just Mercy" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Just Mercy summary:

  • An examination of the justice system's failures toward marginalized populations
  • Examples of criminal cases from history that illistrate the failures
  • Possible solutions for repairing the justice system in America

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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