IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why is America the only country still sentencing children to life without parole?

For too long we have depicted our youth, especially our black youth, as lost causes. But they can change.
A lost generation.
A lost generation.Jun Cen

As a black man in America, I’m keenly aware that people who look a lot like me are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. The way adults of color are treated in our justice system is already upsetting, but the way our justice system treats children, especially black children, is simply deplorable.

Nowhere is this more clearly evident than on the issue of juvenile sentencing. Black children are grossly overrepresented when it comes to kids sentenced to life without parole. This disturbing reality is personal to me: In Pennsylvania, where I live and play football for the Philadelphia Eagles, nearly 80% of juvenile lifers are black.

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that life sentences without parole should only be given to juveniles in the rarest of circumstances. Last year, it ruled that those individuals currently serving life sentences without parole should have their cases reviewed. Currently, more than 2,100 people who were sentenced as children are eligible to have their sentences reviewed and earn a second chance. Approximately 300 of these people are from the city of Philadelphia alone.

In its decision, the Supreme Court said that juvenile life without parole, where kids are sentenced to literally die in prison, should only be given to teens found to be “irreparably corrupt.” But in reality, according to the Fair Punishment Project, the “irreparably corrupt” child is a myth. We have to stop locking up kids and throwing away the key. According to human rights groups, America is the only country that sentences kids to life without parole.

In reality, the “irreparably corrupt” child is a myth.

Take, for example, the case of Stacey Torrance, an individual identified by the Fair Punishment Project (a joint initiative of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute, The Accountable Justice Collaborative at The Advocacy Fund and The Bronx Defender). Stacey was only 14 years old when he was involved in his cousin and another man’s plans to commit a burglary. He did not know the crime would end in a homicide. And yet, despite his youth and the fact that he was not present for the killing, Torrance was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life without parole.

Since then, however, Stacey found his passion working as an electrician. He made 42 cents an hour doing this work for the prison and dreamt of continuing this work on the outside.

After the Supreme Court's decision, Torrance got his second chance at life. He can now, at over 40 years old, do things he’s never done before: get a job, pay a bill, drive a car.

Robert "Saleem" Holbrook just wants the same chance. He was 16 years old when he served as a lookout for what he was told would be a drug deal. The incident ended with a killing that he did not participate in or anticipate, yet he was convicted of second-degree murder. Since then, Saleem has written articles for newspapers, joined the Human Rights Coalition and written a survivor's manual to assist juveniles and their families in navigating juvenile life without parole.

These are just two examples of the hundreds of people sentenced to life without parole in Pennsylvania. There are thousands more like them across the U.S. No one is saying they shouldn’t be held accountable, but should they be prevented from ever redeeming themselves?

The infuriating irony here is that the kids who have received life without parole sentences are, in many ways, the young people who needed our help the most. According to study conducted by the Sentencing Project, 79% of this population witnessed violence in their homes growing up, 40% were enrolled in special education classes, nearly half experienced physical abuse, and three-quarters of the girls had experienced sexual abuse.

The irony here is the kids who have received life without parole sentences are the young people who needed our help the most.

America failed them once. Today, these kids deserve a second chance. Contrary to the super-predator rhetoric utilized by politicians in the past to justify locking up kids for life, adolescents really are different from adults — in almost every way. Their brains are underdeveloped, they struggle with judgment, they are susceptible to peer pressure.

For too long, we have depicted our youth, especially our black youth, as fully developed adults who are a lost cause. But they can change. These are not the soulless “super-predators” the media scared its readers with in the 70s and 80s. These are children. Studies show that even those accused of the most serious crimes age out of crime.

As a child, I was lucky to grow up in home with loving parents and dynamic and supportive mentors. My mom and dad were intensely involved in helping me achieve so many of my dreams. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

I know that not everyone is as fortunate as I was. But everyone deserves to have the opportunity to live life as a free person, and to make something of themselves. When we sentence kids to life behind bars, we deprive them of those opportunities.

A lot of people might question why, as a professional athlete, I’m speaking out on criminal justice issues. I believe that it is my duty to use my platform to raise awareness of the kinds of institutional injustices that so rarely make the news — and that we so rarely question. And I want to elevate the work that so many amazing community grassroots organizations are doing to try and bring about this change.

Fortunately, there is some hope, finally, in my hometown. Philadelphia’s newly elected District Attorney has stated he will not seek juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) for any kid, no matter the crime. He has also vowed to allow older cases to be considered for parole.

This is a great start. Now, other prosecutors should follow suit. No matter their race or hometown, rehabilitation is a beautiful thing. After all, there is nothing more American than giving someone who has worked hard a (second) chance to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Drafted by the New Orleans Saints with the 14th-overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, Malcolm Jenkins earned a Super Bowl ring in 2010. He joined the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014 and earned Pro Bowl honors in 2015. Jenkins is the recipient of the NFLPA’s Byron “Whizzer” White Award for his outstanding charitable efforts off the field and is also the co-founder of the Players Coalition.