NC should end life sentences for juveniles

(Photo: Tony Dejak, AP)
(Photo: Tony Dejak, AP)

Life without parole is “an especially harsh punishment for a juvenile,” the Supreme Court noted in 2010. Yet the United States remains the only country in the world that still allows courts to impose it. And while many states have eliminated the sentence, some have not, including North Carolina.

It is time for our state to replace juvenile life without parole with a more sensible scheme, adopted by states from California to Wyoming, in which lengthy sentences are automatically reviewed at set time periods and juveniles are given the chance to demonstrate rehabilitation.

Why make this change now? For one, overly harsh sentences for juveniles are a holdover from the 1990s, when the “superpredator” theory that predicted a surge in violent crime caused a nationwide panic. Here in North Carolina, judges sentenced 94 juveniles between ages 13 and 17 to life without parole, most of them in the 1990s. The superpredator theory has long been discredited -- the surge never materialized and juvenile crime actually decreased. And few of these sentences are handed down anymore: since 2011, juvenile life without parole has only been imposed five times in the state.

We also know that adolescents do not have fully developed brains and are more likely to act on impulse. Many lack the maturity, judgment and sense of responsibility that come with life experience. Adolescents may be more likely to make a false confession to police, putting them at a greater risk for wrongful conviction, and they also can be highly susceptible to the suggestions of their peers.

Take the North Carolina case of State v. Seam, in which a 16-year-old defendant was present when a friend fatally shot a convenience store clerk. The friend took a plea deal and was sentenced to 27 to 34 years in prison. But Seam testified that he did not know his friend had a gun or even planned to rob the store, and he refused to take a plea deal that would have given him 18 years in prison. He was convicted at trial in 1999 and sentenced to life without parole. In 2011, a lower-court judge concluded that Seam should have his sentence reduced, but it took six more years, two sets of hearings and three rounds of appeals before it was finally shortened to life with parole.

Geographic patterns in these cases raise more cause for concern. In a new report, my co-authors and I describe how these sentences are concentrated in a small group of counties: 61 percent of the 94 juvenile life-without-parole sentences in North Carolina were entered in just 11 of our 100 counties. However, the murder rates in those counties do not correlate with the number of life-without-parole sentences that have been handed down. One reason may be an “inertia” effect: we found that once a county imposed a juvenile life-without-parole sentence, it was more likely to use such a sentence again.

Most of these sentences have been reversed in recent years. Today, only 51 youth offenders are currently serving life without parole, and most of them have not yet gone through the required court hearings to determine whether their punishments should stand. These sentences will likely be reversed in years to come, but it will cost North Carolina millions of dollars to hold more hearings and appeals of cases that will inevitably be reversed. Why burden our court system with a losing battle of defending 1990s-era sentences, rejected almost universally across the globe?

Not only should we replace juvenile life without parole with a sentence that allows for a review after a set amount of time, but we ought to apply that solution to the equally troubling problem of “virtual life” sentences. Hundreds of juveniles are now serving these sentences, which are so long they cannot realistically be completed in a lifetime. As long as these sentences remain on the books in North Carolina, their legacy will stay with us. We hope lawmakers consider making these changes, which would allow for at least the possibility of rehabilitation for juvenile offenders.

Brandon Garrett is the L. Neil Williams Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law. His most recent book is “End of its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.”