death by incarceration.

It is estimated that, in the United States, almost 7000 individuals are currently serving life sentences for crimes committed while under the age of 18 years. Of these individuals, roughly 2500  have been given sentences of life without the possibility of parole. If that isn’t enough to blow your mind, and you need more information to put that number in perspective… The second and third countries to follow the U.S. in sentencing juveniles to life without parole (JLWOP) are Israel and South Africa, both with under 10 individuals each. An equally as significant statistic is that black youth are 10 times more likely to be given a life sentence than their white counterparts.


Image taken from 'The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth':

In looking at these numbers, it is clear that the American Justice System operates in a way unlike any other. Many countries have laws that would allow a juvenile to be sentenced to life in prison (or as many years that would constitute their natural life) though, the U.S. appears to be one of very few that actually utilizes it. These laws vary from state to state. Some have no minimum age, while others have identified 13 years as the appropriate minimum age to spend your life in prison. Of course, these sentences are only given in the cases of extreme crimes such as murder. It should also be noted that the juvenile’s case must first be transferred to adult court. In some states, certain crimes are automatically transferred to adult court without a hearing in juvenile court at all.

These transfers and sentences are imposed under the assumption that these individuals (regardless of their age) are unable to be rehabilitated and that the severity of the crime is correlated with developmental maturation. In other words, if you are old enough to commit murder then you are old enough to receive adult consequences. Moreover, your youth poses an even greater threat in that, if you can commit murder at 13, there is no telling what you’d be capable of at 25, and therefore, you must be locked up for the remainder of your natural life for the greater good of society.

Okay, maybe it is my psychology background that leads me to be horrified by this information. Maybe it’s my Canadian values… whatever the case, these assumptions lack logical reasoning which is overwhelmingly evident when you have a true understanding of biological, social and psychological development. These are complex issues that should be explored in great detail, though, for the purpose of this particular conversation, I am only going to touch on these concerns briefly (perhaps we will have a greater discussion of these issues in the future).

What you need to know in order to understand the implications of the above mentioned assumptions is that biologically, our brains are not fully developed until the age of 24-25 years. What does this mean? The last part of your brain to develop is the frontal lobe which controls emotional regulation, impulsivity, long-term planning, a desire for increased sensation or thrill seeking… In other words, young people (under the age of 25) are more prone to making bad (sometimes awful) decisions simply because their brains are not fully developed and they need novel and unpredictable experiences in order to generate new brain pathways and fully develop their brains. In other words, young people aren’t just prone to seeking new and exciting (and sometimes dangerous) experiences… they must do so in order to develop in a healthy way.

I know some of you are thinking, “Dallis, I went through adolescence too and I didn’t commit murder.” True… Neither did I. That’s why we can’t just take into account biology, we must also look at social development. Speaking for myself, I grew up in a safe community where murder was something that happened rarely, if ever! The youth in my neighborhood were more likely to die of alcohol poisoning than a gun shot wound. That said… this isn’t the case for many youth across the United States (and Canada).

In Chicago, community and gang violence is an everyday occurrence. I’m not just talking about on the warm days during the summer months… It’s every single day! I know it can be hard for some of you to imagine (even for myself), but when you grow up around something that happens every day you begin to view it as normal. You become desensitized to it and it becomes something that you learn to expect rather than to be surprised by. It even becomes comfortable.

Consider also that many of these youth don’t come from wealthy families and don’t have the opportunities to leave their communities if only for the chance to “take a break,” or “expand their world view.” This is what they know, what they expect and eventually what they become comfortable with. That is not to say they like it or that they approve of it. It’s just familiar… and for some, being a part of the violent or criminal culture is a method of survival.

Think for a moment about your own family, neighborhood, or community. Are there aspects of each that you don’t like? Do they also give you a sense of comfort in the familiar? Are there things that you have come to accept about each that you later recognized as dysfunctional or unhealthy? Yeah? Okay… we’re getting there.

Now, let’s look at the psychological component. This, again, is a complex topic. Specifically, I would like to address the issue of psychological trauma, though, it should be noted that other types of psychological issues may also be a prominent factor. The experience of psychological trauma is something that this population is hugely over exposed to.

Whether it is a result of abuse, witnessing, being a victim of or participation in community violence, exposure to domestic violence, etc., these youth have undoubtedly been affected by trauma at least once in their young lives, if not, multiple times. Common reactions to trauma exposure include: difficulty regulating your emotions, impulsivity, aggressiveness, hyper vigilance (may look like paranoia or always looking out for threats), hyper arousal (always being on guard or agitated), re-experiencing (flashbacks, nightmares, or subconscious exposure to situations or events that mimic the original trauma), or dissociation (feeling disconnected from one’s emotions, body or experiences)… Any of these sound familiar?? Many of these symptoms are also “symptoms” of being an adolescent or young adult. Trauma in adolescence can exacerbate any of these challenges our youth are already experiencing as a natural part of development.

Why are these symptoms of trauma significant? Good question… if you can imagine being a child or adolescent experiencing these symptoms and not having control over when they occur, how long they last, or even having an understanding of why they occur, it is likely that you would have the perception or thought that something is wrong with you. Further, you might feel like you are different, that you can’t trust people or that you are generally unsafe. You would likely do anything you could to feel “normal,” or to feel safe… Given what we know about biology, social development and trauma symptoms, you might even impulsively do what is familiar and what gives you the greatest sense of control over your environment even if that is counter intuitive (as you cannot yet think through long term consequences).

For many of these young people, being a part of a gang gives them a sense of physical and financial safety and security. Whether this is a false perception or not, in the immediate it effectively fills that need. Gangs also give them a sense of belonging and that they are not “crazy,” or “abnormal,” that they fit in (show me an adolescent that doesn’t want that…). Further, having money and weapons at one’s disposal can provide a sense of personal power and control: something that is stolen from them during a traumatic event which by nature involves a complete loss of control over one’s own physical being and/or their environment.

Drugs are also an effective immediate solution… Feeling on edge, angry, anxious or paranoid, not being able to eat, sleep or stop negative thoughts are just some of the reasons individuals use drugs and alcohol to cope. This is sometimes referred to as “self-medication. Of course, these are not the only reasons young people choose to get involved in criminal activity or use illicit substances, but these things do make them much more susceptible. Unfortunately, criminal involvement and substance use also increase the risk of being exposed to new traumas and can impair healthy brain and psychological development creating a snow ball effect.

Though, from a 13 year olds perspective, these choices make perfect sense. In fact, they’re brilliant solutions to a problem that they don’t know exists and no one is acknowledging, intervening or offering alternatives to. Youth look for low effort, high reward solutions to their problems (as a result of their brain development and cognitive capabilities) and gangs and drugs just happen to fit the bill.

If someone had a brain injury and could not conceivably make an informed decision would we not take that into consideration in determining culpability? Why would we hold a different standard for our youth who, essentially, are missing a vital component of their brain? How can we make an assumption of responsibility without fully taking into consideration their culture, environment, and social influence? How can we assume that these youth present a permanent threat to society, or make a decision about rehabilitative prognosis, without first identifying and attempting to treat any underlying trauma and/or mental health conditions?

If we don’t acknowledge these undeniable contributing factors, the end result is exactly what we see in the U.S.… Over 2500 youth sentenced to “death by incarceration.”

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Additional Resources: 
Human Rights Watch
The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth
No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America