The Ridiculous Reason 13 Year Olds Are Getting Life Without Parole

September 6th 2015

In 1972, there were 300,000 inmates in prisons and jails across the United States. Today there are over two million incarcerated Americans. And many children and teens are sentenced as adults. "Nearly 3,000 nationwide have been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole," the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) reports. "Children as young as 13 years old have been tried as adults and sentenced to die in prison, typically without any consideration of their age or circumstances of the offense."


“Mass incarceration, in my judgment, has fundamentally changed our world," Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of EJI in Montgomery, Alabama, and author of the 2014 New York Times bestseller "Just Mercy," said in a 2012 TED talk. "In poor communities, in communities of color there is this despair, there is this hopelessness, that is being shaped by these outcomes."

The Equal Justice Initiative is a nonprofit legal organization that provides representation for individuals who have fallen through the cracks of the criminal justice system. In the words of EJI: “We litigate on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct.” EJI focuses much of its work on juveniles sentenced to life without parole and on death penalty cases in Alabama, the state with the highest number of death sentences per capita.

I spoke with EJI Senior Attorney Alicia D’Addario about the roadblocks that stand in the way of reforming the criminal justice system, and the work that EJI does to remove these roadblocks. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

ATTN: What do you think is the biggest misconception that the general public has about the criminal justice system?

Alicia D’Addario: I think the biggest misconception people have is that [the system] is rationally determining who’s guilty and who’s innocent. I don’t think that it really does that. We have a system where outcomes are shaped much more by poverty than they are by innocence or guilt. The vast majority of defendants don’t have the resources to hire a private attorney, and so [we have] overburdened lawyers who are not being paid a sufficient amount to really invest time in each of their cases. We end up with a system where people are being shuffled through without much real determination about their culpability. That’s certainly what’s happened to many of our young clients, who were particularly unprepared to navigate the system, because they’re so young. They don’t even understand what’s happening in their trials.

ATTN: What’s the biggest obstacle standing the way of achieving a more equitable justice system?

AD: I think a big part of it is that people aren’t proximate to the system, and so they don’t really see what’s happening. I think it’s important for people to see what really occurs, and to get to know some of the people who these things are happening to, which is why I think "Just Mercy" is so helpful.

ATTN: When will EJI’s work be done? What does the justice system look like in a perfect world?

AD: In a perfect world, our justice system would be much more focused on addressing the harms caused by crime. I think that now we have a focus on punishing people just to punish them. That doesn’t always serve people who have been hurt by crime. There are a lot of other needs that people, who have been victims of crime have: to understand why it happened, to feel confident that it’s not going to happen again, and to see some reform and change in the person. I think if we had a system that was much more restorative, it could achieve those goals more effectively.

ATTN: In "Just Mercy," one of the prison guards seems to have a change of heart when he realizes that many of the prisoners had difficult upbringings, like he did. How often do you see similar changes in attitudes about prisoners?

AD: There are definitely people who you might not expect to be sympathetic, but who, through exposure to this issue, have become real allies. We talk to corrections officers; we talk to bailiffs, other people in the system, who see what’s going on and are concerned about it.

ATTN: Are you able to share anything about the cases you’re working on now?

AD: These cases move pretty slowly, so [we're] still working on some of the cases that are mentioned in the book. We have about a couple dozen cases of kids who were 13 or 14 who were sentenced to life without parole that we work on around the country. We also represent nearly all of the children who have been sentenced to mandatory life without parole here in Alabama, and we’re challenging their sentences under the Miller decision (in 2012, EJI lawyers won a Supreme Court case that argued that the mandatory sentencing of juveniles to life without parole is unconstitutional). One of the big problems since Miller has been that a lot of states have been arguing that Miller’s not retroactive, so that’s been a big issue that we’ve been litigating.

ATTN: The book mentions that EJI has programs in place to assist released prisoners. Can you talk about these?

AD: We have our post-release education preparation program, or PREP. It’s geared particularly towards people who went to prison very young, as teenagers generally, and who have spent a long time in prison, sometimes several decades. There’s a lot of things that they don’t know how to do—if you went to prison as a kid, you’ve never looked at an apartment, you’ve never had a bank account. Some of our clients never learned to drive. There’s a whole range of basic skills that most of us take for granted that they’ve never been exposed to. We generally help them find employment and housing, and then we tailor the program for a particular client, to his or her specific needs.

ATTN: How can people get involved with EJI?

We actually have a list of ways for people to get involved on our website. A lot of these prisoners have very little support—especially people who went to prison as teenagers and had really difficult family situations. One great thing people can do is to become a pen pal for someone in prison. We also put out a lot of reports, so if people want to get our materials, get educated, share those materials [to] other folks in their community—that’s another great thing you can do.

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