Why Mass Incarceration Defines Us As a Society

Bryan Stevenson, the winner of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in social justice, has taken his fight all the way to the Supreme Court

Bryan Stevenson crusades for thousands of young people in America's prisons. (Ethan Hill)
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Stevenson’s effort began with detailed research: Among more than 2,000 juveniles (age 17 or younger) who had been sentenced to life in prison without parole, he and staff members at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the nonprofit law firm he established in 1989, documented 73 involving defendants as young as 13 and 14. Children of color, he found, tended to be sentenced more harshly.

“The data made clear that the criminal justice system was not protecting children, as is done in every other area of the law,” he says. So he began developing legal arguments “that these condemned children were still children.”

Stevenson first made those arguments before the Supreme Court in 2009, in a case involving a 13-year-old who had been convicted in Florida of sexual battery and sentenced to life in prison without parole. The court declined to rule in that case—but upheld Stevenson’s reasoning in a similar case it had heard the same day, Graham v. Florida, ruling that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for crimes other than murder violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Last June, in two cases brought by Stevenson, the court erased the exception for murder. Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs centered on defendants who were 14 when they were arrested. Evan Miller, from Alabama, used drugs and alcohol late into the night with his 52-year-old neighbor before beating him with a baseball bat in 2003 and setting his residence on fire. Kuntrell Jackson, from Arkansas, took part in a 1999 video-store robbery with two older boys, one of whom shot the clerk to death.

The states argued that children and adults are not so different that a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole is inappropriate.

Stevenson’s approach was to argue that other areas of the law already recognized significant differences, noting that children’s brains and adults’ are physiologically distinct. This, he said, is why children are barred from buying alcohol, serving on juries or voting. He argued that the horrific abuse and neglect that drove many of these children to commit crimes were beyond their control. He said science, precedent and consensus among the majority of states confirmed that condemning a child to die in prison, without ever having a chance to prove that he or she had been rehabilitated, constituted cruel and unusual punishment. “It could be argued that every person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” he told the court. “But what this court has said is that children are uniquely more than their worst act.”

The court agreed, 5 to 4, in a landmark decision.

“If ever a pathological background might have contributed to a 14-year-old’s commission of a crime, it is here,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan, author of the court’s opinion in Miller. “Miller’s stepfather abused him; his alcoholic and drug-addicted mother neglected him; he had been in and out of foster care as a result; and he had tried to kill himself four times, the first when he should have been in kindergarten.” Children “are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing,” she added, because “juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”

States are still determining how the ruling will affect juveniles in their prisons. “I don’t advocate that young people who kill should be shielded from punishment. Sometimes the necessary intervention with a youth who has committed a serious crime will require long-term incarceration or confinement,” Stevenson says. “However, I don’t think we can throw children away.” Sentences “should recognize that these young people will change.”



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