The Guardian or Authority of Law, created by sculptor James Earle Fraser, rests on the side of the U.S. Supreme Court on September 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images)
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile defendants don’t jibe with the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” and be imposed on the rare juvenile who is “permanently incorrigible,” Louisiana has acted as if incorrigibility isn’t rare at all. It has acted as if young defendants deserve every bit of the cruelty that older defendants do.
“Louisiana — just like we see on the adult side — per capita has sentenced more children to life without parole than any other state,” Victor Jones, a New Orleans-based attorney for children, said in a Thursday afternoon interview.
Hours before that interview the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 opinion written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, ruled that a court doesn’t have to make an on-the-record finding that a juvenile defendant is permanently incorrigible before imposing life without parole. Hearings to determine incorrigibility have been used to predict if the convicted juvenile is one of the worst of the worst that should get life without parole. In a case involving a Mississippi defendant convicted in the murder of his grandfather when he was 15, the defendant’s attorney argued that there was no way to know if the judge considered the boy’s youth when he sentenced him. The majority ruled that “it would be all but impossible for a sentencer” to not have considered his youth .
Since 2012, Jones said, Louisiana has largely been ignoring Miller v. Alabama, which prohibited mandatory life without parole for defendants younger than 18. Henry Montgomery, a Louisiana man who was 17 when he killed a Baton Rouge police officer in 1963, asked the Supreme Court to make its Miller ruling retroactive, and even though the court did, Louisiana’s response was to grant Montgomery parole hearings and then deny the model prisoner’s request for release. He’s now 74.
With Thursday’s ruling, Jones said, Louisiana judges will be further emboldened to condemn juveniles to prison for the rest of their lives.
Thursday’s ruling “broke my heart for specifically Black children and children with disability,” Jones said. “Because those are the two groups that we know are more likely to be faced with these charges. The idea that a child is incapable of redemption is contrary to morals, but it’s also contrary to scientific evidence that shows that juvenile brains are not the equivalent of adults, and therefore there is room to grow. Think about being held accountable for the rest of your life for something you did as a child.”
Brett Jones, the Mississippian who lost at the Supreme Court Thursday, is White, but Jones is right that the ruling is especially scary for Black children. In a separate interview, Gina Womack, the executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children who serves on two state boards related to juvenile justice, said of the Kavanaugh opinion, “it’s disheartening to see us moving backwards.” She said “the ruling essentially permits a racist and inequitable system to sentence more Black youth of color to die in prison.”
Undergirding such decisions, she said, is the belief that children who do wrong are “throwaway children,” that anything can be done to them because “nobody loves them.”
Kevin Griffin-Clark, who was sentenced to the now shuttered Tallulah Detention Center when he was 10, said Thursday that he begged his mother to stop traveling the three-and-a-half hours from New Orleans every weekend because he knew she was putting herself out by either renting a car every time or arranging someone to drive her. He said one man who often drove his mother said she’d cry all the way to Tallulah, “get herself together, come in there and visit you, and then she would come out and cry the whole time home.”
Griffin-Clark said some boys attacked him with sticks, and a shard of glass from a broken bottle he threw at them struck one of them in the face, causing him to lose his eye. When Griffin-Clark got to Tallulah, he said, he was so tiny, he couldn’t fit any of the clothes.
The 36-year-old husband and father of three is now a multimedia specialist and a youth pastor who has no tolerance for adults who are unforgiving of children. “If we’re honest, we all have a story (where) we did something that could have changed the trajectory of our lives for the worse in an instant, and God gave us grace and it didn’t go that way,” he said.
“I have an 11-year old-son now,” Griffin-Clark said. “I remember when he made 10 I cried like crazy. It hit me so hard. Man, a judge would lock him up right now.”
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