In The News

Bobby Bostic and the Injustice of Life Sentences for Kids

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the appeal of Bobby Bostic, a man refused parole after serving 21 years on a sentence he received when he was just 16. Earlier this year in an op-ed in the Washington Post, retired Missouri court judge Evelyn Baker said she regretted his sentence of 241 years in 1997 for two armed robberies:

While I did not technically give him “life without parole,” I placed on his shoulders a prison term of so many years combined that there is no way he will ever be considered for release. He won’t become eligible for parole until he is 112 years old — which means he will die in prison, regardless of whether he rehabilitates himself or changes as he grows older.

I see now that this kind of sentence is as benighted as it is unjust. But Missouri and a handful of other states still allow such sentences, and the Missouri courts have affirmed the sentence I handed down.

Even though the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling said that life without parole for juvenile defenders should be given only in cases of “irreparable corruption,” advocates say most people currently serving time still have a slim chance at resentencing. In JSTOR Daily, Katie Rose Quandt looked at the history of harsh penalties for juveniles and notes the United States remains the only country in the world that sentences people to die in jail for crimes committed as children. “Since 2005, several key Supreme Court decisions and individual state laws have sought to protect children from the most extreme sentences, but even these reforms have faced significant resistance from prosecutors and lawmakers,” she writes.

In USA Today, Miriam Krinsky, executive director for Fair and Just Prosecution (an Art for Justice Fund grantee), joined DC Attorney General Karl Racine and Shay Bilchik, director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, in an op-ed that said the courts “dropped the ball” in the Bostic case but going forward prosecutors could rethink their approach to young people to prevent such sentences from happening:

Prosecutors have the authority in their own right to change practice, and reform-minded district attorneys can use their power to ensure decisions like this do not happen again.

Prosecutors are gatekeepers to the justice system. They have significant discretion to decide whether to press charges and what those charges will be, to pursue charges in adult court and seek the maximum penalties or offer a negotiated plea deal. They can advocate for or oppose treatment-based alternatives to incarceration, and they recommend sentence length. Prosecutors can wield influence over how justice is served — with or without the engagement of the Supreme Court.

And the need for reform within juvenile and young adult justice goes far deeper than just abandoning extreme sentences like the one Bostic is serving.

Prosecutors are in the business of relying on evidence. In the realm of juvenile and young adult justice, scientific evidence often challenges practice. Not only do we know that adolescent brains are different, we now know that adolescents and young adults often age out of crime. We know that there is no magical age at which adolescence ends and adulthood begins. For some, the human brain does not mature until the age of 25. We know that confining youth may actually increase their chances of recidivism and that there are more effective alternatives. But most important, we know that adolescence is a window of opportunity — young people are defining their sense of self and the brain experiences its last great window of plasticity. In short, adolescence is a phase in life that is ripe for second chances.

The authors note several programs that divert young people from juvenile detention as models for better ways forward.