Christiaan Mitchell '14: Support bills to end jailing juvenile offenders for life (The Star Advertiser)

February 12, 2014

By Christiaan Mitchell 

POSTED: The Star Advertiser

01:30 a.m. HST, Feb 12, 2014

Did you know that there is a country that has sentenced thousands of children to die in prison?

And did you know that that country is the only nation in the world that still locks its children up and throws away the key, in clear violation of international human rights law?

Hawaii remains one of a rapidly shrinking number of states, in the only nation in the world, that sentences juvenile offenders to life in imprisonment without possibility of parole.

In his recent State of the State address, Gov. Neil Abercrombie underlined our well-known commitment to our children. Hawaii has a long-standing historical commitment, dating back to the Kingdom of Hawaii, of not simply throwing our people -- especially our children -- away like so much rubbish. Yet, despite this, we continue to participate in this merciless practice.

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken notice of the manifest injustice of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole. In its 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida, the court held that sentencing juveniles to life without parole for any crime other than murder violated the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Following this, in 2012 the court found in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life sentences without parole -- even for murder -- violated the Constitution.

Both of these decisions were built upon a growing body of psychological evidence that human brain development continues well into our mid-20s. As anyone with high school or college-aged kids can attest, this neurological underdevelopment causes individuals under roughly the age of 25 to be unable fully to appreciate the scope of the consequences of their actions. Put simply, most individuals are in many respects physiologically incapable of thinking like adults before then.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan summed up the problem succinctly when she said: "Imposition of a State's most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children."

This year alone, there are 25 bills in 17 states that attempt to end this horrible practice. Fortunately, Hawaii can count itself among them. This session, there are three bills before the state Legislature -- House Bills 1785 and 2116 and Senate Bill 2214 -- that would take off our books the laws that allow us to sentence our youth to die in prison. However, these bills cannot move forward without community support.

Sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is an irrational and cruel punishment unsupported by science, unjustified by morality, and that stands in direct contravention of internationally accepted norms.

The thought that a child who is not even yet shaving could be condemned permanently to live in prison is not right in a place like Hawaii, which historically has had such a deep and clear commitment to its children.

Hawaii should not be one of the last places on the planet with these draconian laws.

One nation in the world is too many. One state in our nation is too many. One young Hawaiian condemned forever for something he or she did as a minor is too many.