Some hope for juvenile lifers


By: Marlene Martin

In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that children under the age of 18 can no longer be sentenced to mandatory life without the possibility of parole. Unfortunately the court did not ban the sentence outright, as it should have, leaving the United States with the macabre distinction of being the only country in the world to allow children to be sentenced to life without parole.

Mark Clements was 16 when he went to prison on a life without parole sentence. He spent 28 years wrongfully incarcerated. He makes this point,“ If the government honestly cared about change, they would prohibit this sentence and implement a plan that can restore kids back to society, rather than lock them up and throw away the key.”

Nevertheless, this ruling is a step in the right direction. Now, when a juvenile offender comes to court facing this sentence, it will possible for a lawyer to present mitigating evidence to the judge—to outline the person’s background, his or her resources or lack of them, the circumstances and nature of the crime, whether or not they had support or lived in poverty or had other hardships—things that should impact sentencing.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court didn’t say whether their decision should be applied retroactively—instead, leaving it to states to decide this on their own. Five states banned the sentence completely. Most, including Texas, Illinois, West Virginia, Ohio and others, are allowing the law to be applied retroactively to the nearly 2,000 people currently serving this sentence. Pennsylvania, with the largest number—over 400—of juvenile offenders with a life without parole sentence is not.

For Jamie Jackson, who just turned 41 in an Illinois prison a few weeks ago, this ruling is a light at the end of a more-than-two-decade-long tunnel. “Time truly does wait for no one. I’m grateful to see another birthday. Hopefully next year, I can celebrate my day as a free man.” In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that children under the age of 18 can no longer be sentenced to mandatory life without the possibility of parole. Unfortunately the court did not ban the sentence outright, as it should have, leaving the United States with the macabre distinction of being the only country in the world to allow children to be sentenced to life without parole.

Mark Clements was 16 when he went to prison on a life without parole sentence. He spent 28 years wrongfully incarcerated. He makes this point,“ If the government honestly cared about change, they would prohibit this sentence and implement a plan that can restore kids back to society, rather than lock them up and throw away the key.”

Nevertheless, this ruling is a step in the right direction.  Now, when a juvenile offender comes to court facing this sentence, it will possible for a lawyer to present mitigating evidence to the judge—to outline the person’s background, his or her resources or lack of them, the circumstances and nature of the crime, whether or not they had support or lived in poverty or had other hardships—things that should impact sentencing.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court didn’t say whether their decision should be applied retroactively—instead, leaving it to states to decide this on their own. Five states banned the sentence completely. Most, including Texas, Illinois, West Virginia, Ohio and others, are allowing the law to be applied retroactively to the nearly 2,000 people currently serving this sentence. Pennsylvania, with the largest number—over 400—of juvenile offenders with a life without parole sentence is not.

For Jamie Jackson, who just turned 41 in an Illinois prison a few weeks ago, this ruling is a light at the end of a more-than-two-decade-long tunnel. “Time truly does wait for no one. I’m grateful to see another birthday. Hopefully next year, I can celebrate my day as a free man.”