You may be thinking to yourself, “I thought the United States Supreme Court ruled juveniles being sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole unconstitutional.” Then how is it that I am still sentenced as a JLWOP? Because the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling only ruled it unconstitutional to give a “mandatory” LWOP sentence to a juvenile, which overturned every state’s JLWOP sentences except for California’s.
I am still wrongfully sentenced to JLWOP not only because I am innocent but also because the wording of California’s JLWOP sentencing laws. California makes the JLWOP sentence both “mandatory” (which is unconstitutional) and “not mandatory” (undecided by the U.S. Supreme Court) at the same time. California law says that the juvenile “shall be sentenced to a term of LWOP” the word “shall” makes the JLWOP sentence mandatory. However, the working goes on to say that the judge “may impose a term of 25 to life”.
Is the California JLWOP sentence mandatory of not? That’s a decision the courts still need to decide on because California Governor Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamal Harris continue to impose LWOP sentences on juveniles in California even though the California Democratic Party claims to oppose JLWOP sentences due to humanitarian issues.
In the rest of the world, under international law and a United Nations treaty, JWLOP sentences are actually illegal. The United States is the only country in the world that has not signed the U.N. treaty and continues to impose this inhumane sentence on minors, with the state of California leading the way. The United States of America, especially the state of California with the largest prison population within the U.S., is so focused on incarcerating people that the United States of America, “the land of the free” holds 25% of the world’s prison population and 100% of the world’s children serving LWOP sentences. In comparison the United States only has 5% of the world’s overall population.
Where is the humanity in sentencing children to Life Without The Possibility of Parole? Minors being sentenced to die in prison? The sentence LWOP is so much harsher and more brutal on juveniles than it is on adults. A juvenile sentenced to Life without Parole could easily live 60 to 70 years in prison. Being punished and suffering all that time, watching everyone they know and love move on or pass away until they are left completely alone in this world, their only comfort the cold embrace of prison.
For a child who is actually guilty of a crime, even this sentence is too harsh because it doesn’t take into account their ability to change and mature as they grow older and become an adult. They could still have the capacity to be ‘rehabilitated’ and turn into positive and productive human being. This is why JLWOP is in violation of international law, opposed by the California Democratic Party and why the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “mandatory” JLWOP sentences unconstitutional.
How many adults are really the same person they were at 15, 16, or 17 years old? How many didn’t actually become mature adults until their mid to late 20’s? Neuro-science research has proven that the human brain doesn’t fully develop rational reasoning skills until reaching the early to mid 20’s. This science played a big part in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that “mandatory” JLWOP sentences are unconstitutional. Basically, they acknowledged that kids are in fact kids and not adults yet.
Why then is the United States of America and specifically California still imposing this inhumane sentence on children? What is the purpose of it and why is our society OK with it?
JLWOP is inhumane enough if the child is actually guilty, how much worse is is when the child sentenced is innocent? If a child’s rational reasoning skills are not fully developed according to science and the U.S. Supreme Court, how are they expected to actually participate in their defense to prove their innocence? How are they supposed to speak up on their own behalf and adequately defend themselves when they are told to trust their lawyer (the adult) and the justice system (the other adults).
I trusted the adults. I trusted my lawyer to defend me. I was raised to believe in the justice system, I trusted it would protect me. And for that trust I was wrongfully convicted and ultimately sentenced to JLWOP (Life Without the Possibility of Parole) at 16 years old.
Written by Sean O’Brien