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Life Imprisonment for a Child. How Will It Affect Their Mental and Physical Health?

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Life in prison without parole is one of the worst punishments given in the judicial system, so why should a child have to endure that? A child’s brain isn’t fully developed, making them more vulnerable to violence, no other country in the world allows children to be tried for life without parole. Lastly, if a child is sentenced to a life in prison, they will be isolated a majority of the time which could make them become more violent or cause them to descend into mental insanity. I believe in justice, but making a child suffer through a life in prison with no chance of getting out is an unfair punishment and needs to be changed.

Many people argue that if a child was mature enough to commit the crime, they should be mature enough to be sentenced as an adult. They are too dangerous, even at such a young age, to be allowed in the public eye and gave up their rights the second they committed the crime. There are also many people who assume that because a teen committed a violent act once, they will commit another crime that will be just as violent or likely more violent (‘Sentencing Juveniles to Life”). This is a perfect example of what is called a slippery slope argument. In simple terms a slippery slope argument can be described as an argument with little to no evidence that leads to a chain of reactions resulting in a bad ending (“Slippery Slope”). There is no evidence that supports the argument that just because a child committed a crime once they will do it again, or do something even worse. You can just as easily argue that if they don’t go to prison for life, they will not commit any crimes and become a world-renowned inspirational speaker. You cannot predict the future of a child or what they will do after a horrible incident and if you lock them up in jail for the rest of their life you will never find out. Maybe they will commit another crime that will land them with a life sentence or maybe they will learn from their mistakes and make a significant impact on our society.

Right now, in America, there are 23 states and the District of Columbia that currently follow a general law that says no child can be sentenced to life without possibility of parole, which includes homicide cases. This was based on the 2012 Supreme Court case Miller V. Alabama where the court found it unconstitutional to give juveniles life without parole even in the case of a homicide (Rovner, Josh, and Ashley Nellis). This controversial issue has many Americans divided with many people believing it is unconstitutional to sentence a child life without a chance of parole and others believing life without parole is the only way to keep our citizens safe. While you have to take into account the feelings and pain that a homicide victims’ family is undergoing, you also have to take into account the feelings of the perpetrator and their family. Although it is hard to think about, they are a person who has feelings and a family that cares for and loves them. Taking both family’s emotions into account do you really feel it right to send another child to die in jail? Many people argue that an eye for an eye is only what’s fair, but this is another child’s life that you are taking away. The people who send that child to life in prison without the chance of parole are doing the same thing that the child did, just in a different way. They are both dead, they both suffered, and they both paid the price, but at what cost?

The United States is the only country in the world that allows children to be sentenced to a life in prison without the chance of parole. Today there are over 2,500 juveniles that have been sentenced and are currently serving life without parole (“End Juvenile Life Without Parole”). Many of these children, although some varied, were brought up around violence where many of them had been abused or sexually assaulted. These factors are huge contributors to their violence and the crimes they committed. It is scientifically proven that a child’s early years of life have some of the biggest effects on them (“Child Development and Early Learning”). If your child is brought up in a violent area, with violent people, and that’s all they know they will turn out to be violent and “troubled” because they don’t know any other way. They have not seen people reacting calmly and don’t know what a “normal” family environment looks like so the way they react to situations is how they were taught and is the only way they know.

When we send a child, who has grown up with violence to prison for life, we are only surrounding them with another violent offender. This prevents the child from seeing a different environment without violence surrounding them. Children who entered adult prison at a young age are nine times more likely to commit suicide due to their greater risk of facing sexual assault, rape, or physical violence (“Children in Adult Prison”). Although some prisons take into account the harm an adult can do a child, they still harm the child’s mental sanity. This is because when the children are separated, they are usually confined to their cell or to a small area in the prison with very little social interaction. This can cause the children to go mentally insane or create a mental disorder that is likely to drive them to suicide.

Human brains do not fully develop until the age of 25, with most kids using their amygdala, the emotional side of the brain, to make decisions. The connections between the emotional decision maker and the rational decision maker in a teens brain are still developing which can interfere with the way teens react to situations. They will react based on emotions rather than thinking about long term consequences rationally, like adults would (“Understanding the Teen Brain”). As a result of Roper V. Simmons in 2005, The United States Supreme Court finally came to light about child brain development stating, “Immaturity diminishes their culpability.” This court ruling was only applied to teens on death row though. They believed that sending a child to die was “cruel and unusual”, but isn’t giving a teen life in prison essentially the same thing (Rovner, Josh, and Ashley Nellis)? You are sending a child to go to prison instead of a chair, but either way they will still end up dead by the hands of the judicial system. The court case Montgomery v. Louisiana followed 68-year-old Henry Montgomery, in 2016, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole at only 17 years old. Henry Montgomery murdered Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Hunt 2 weeks after turning 17 for reasons still unknown.

During his time in prison Montgomery has been a “model prisoner” with a clean prison record and apologizing to his victim’s daughter saying “I’m sorry, I’m just sorry for this whole situation.” (The Associated Press@AP and ‘Montgomery v. Louisiana”). Montgomery was obviously young and immature at the time and realizes his mistake now. He has learned and grown from his mistake he made almost 55 years ago, but is still getting punished for it. Although I believe teens should learn how to control their emotions and use them for good, it is not fair to penalize a child who overreacted to a situation with a life sentence without a chance of parole. It is scientifically proven that they don’t have the proper brain connections to not react based on emotions, such as fear, anger, or survival.

The United States has taken many notable leaps in protecting juveniles in the court system within the past 20 years. The Roper v. Simons case in 2005 made it illegal for children under the age of 18 to be charged with the death penalty (Rovner, Josh, and Ashley Nellis). The case Graham v. Florida in 2009 made it illegal for kids to be charged with life without parole in non-homicide cases (“Graham v. Florida”) and Miller v. Alabama in 2012. This case is possibly the most notable because it banned mandatory life in prison without parole for homicide victims and instead gave children the chance to have a full trial. At the end of the trial, with testimonies being heard from both sides, the courts must decide if the child is incapable of rehabilitation and needs to spend a life in prison for the safety of our countries people (“Miller v. Alabama”). Justice Kagen gave a strong argument for this case stating, “ mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the eighth amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ and that a ‘judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.”(“Miller v. Alabama”). This case took a huge step towards our goal of having no child suffer through life in prison without the possibility of parole, but we still need to do more.

My intention in this argument is not to discredit the judicial system and the laws that they have implemented. Growing up surrounded by police officers I know firsthand how important justice is to protect our nation and its people. I know and fully understand that these children have broken the law and they need a series consequence for their actions to be able to learn and grow as a person. I’m arguing that an adult punishment for a child, while knowing all the information you just heard, is far too serious of a punishment.

These children need help, they need to be shown love and compassion and see that there is hope after violence. Many children are put into prison already feeling helpless and alone which only makes that feeling grow the longer they are behind bars. We need to put them in juvenile detention centers that have special accommodations for the kids. They should have teachers and classes so they will still be able to graduate from high school even though they are in prison. This gives the children a sense of hope and accomplishment that there is life after prison and they don’t have to resort back to crime. They can even have some technical school classes for prisoners who want to go in mechanics, electrician, or cosmetology which will be a privilege they must earn. There also needs to be mental help centers and one on one counseling every week to talk about their future after prison and talk through emotional issues that could have made them commit the crime. I know this is not a perfect plan for every prisoner, but they need to know that they have hope after prison and the crime they committed doesn’t define them. They can leave prison, whenever their court ordered time has been served, with a high school diploma and technical skills to be able to go straight into work which will give them a better future and a life after prison.

I’m arguing on behalf of the children and the punishments they are receiving. Although they commit an “adult crime” they are not adults and should not be treated with the same circumstances as such. The United States is the only country in the world that allows children to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Children are more vulnerable to violence because their brain hasn’t developed the proper skills to think through a situation rationally yet. Lastly, children who are sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole are more likely to be surrounded by violence and fall into mental insanity that is likely to lead to depression or suicide. They are just kids trying to survive in this world the best they know how and we are punishing them for their entire lives for a horrible mistake they made at such a young, vulnerable age. We, as Americans, are saying to them that there is no hope for them after they have committed the crime and they don’t deserve to have a second chance. This argument won’t be over until no child is sentenced to life without parole and they get the rights they deserve.

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