7.04.2008

NAACP: Halt youth life sentences in Mississippi

Final Call National News
NAACP: Halt youth life sentences in Mississippi
By Jesse Muhammad, Staff Writer
http://www.finalcall.com/artman/publish/article_4926.shtml

Legal Defense Fund calls for moratorium on life sentences for youth in Mississippi

(FinalCall.com) - “While there is no doubt that everyone should be held responsible for their actions, a sentence which denies a child any opportunity for reform is simply unjust,” said John Payton, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The group has released what it called a groundbreaking report examining the racial, social, political, and economic circumstances surrounding juvenile life without parole sentencing in Mississippi.

“No Chance to Make it Right: Life Without Parole for Juvenile Offenders” is the first comprehensive analysis of Mississippi’s practice of sentencing teenagers to life without parole, according to the Legal Defense Fund. The analysis found Blacks are significantly overrepresented among the youth currently serving such sentences. The group called for a series of reforms, including the immediate elimination of life without parole sentences for juveniles.

Blacks make up about 37 percent of Mississippi’s population, but comprise nearly 80 percent of the juvenile offenders serving life sentences. Poverty, lack of quality education and dysfunctional homes are among three traits shared by teens sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in a cell, the report said. It was released May 27.

Nationally there are 2,380 people serving life without parole for crimes they were convicted of committing as children. Although most of these individuals were either 16 or 17 at the time of their crimes, nearly 16 percent were 15-years-old or younger. Ninety-seven percent of those sentenced to life without parole as children are male. Sixty percent are Black.

In Mississippi, 20 of the 26 persons sentenced to life without parole sentences as teenagers are Black. Carlton Reeves, former president of Mississippi’s Magnolia Bar Association, called the figures “very disturbing. Prosecutors, law enforcement officials, lawyers, lawmakers and concerned citizens alike must pause and ask themselves how and why Blacks can represent 80 percent of the kids sentenced to life without parole in a state whose total population is less than 40 percent African American.”

“Mississippi is one of 42 states that allow juveniles convicted of murder to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole,” said Holly Thomas, a Legal Defense Fund assistant counsel. The study notes that Mississippi law allows sentences to be imposed on children as young as 13. Ten states allow children of any age to be sentenced to life without parole.

According to the Legal Defense Fund, other disturbing aspects of flawed Mississippi juvenile life without parole sentencing is that once a teenager is convicted as an adult of capital murder, judges have no choice but to impose a sentence of life without parole.

“When sentencing anyone, a judge should balance the circumstances of the individual against the harm to the community,” argued former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson.

“Life without parole is a one-size-fits-all solution that denies judges the ability to consider the unique realities of the lives of the children that appear before them and strips the court of the option of recognizing the very real capacity for rehabilitation in some of their cases.”

Derrick Johnson, head of Mississippi NAACP, added, “There is no question that the young men sentenced to life without parole have caused harm to individuals, families and communities. We should not, however, throw away children that have made terrible mistakes without first taking a serious look at ways our community could have prevented them from turning to criminal acts.”

A striking example given in the study is the case of then 14-year-old David Moody. In 1995, the boy confessed to Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee that his older cousin pressured him to participate in the murder of two local teenagers. Although David has maintained his innocence, he was arrested, convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life without possibility of parole.

Sheriff McGee testified on David’s behalf at his trial and recently said he did so because he believed David was telling the truth and feared his cousin would kill him, if he disobeyed instructions.

“It’s one of those deals in your career where it never sits well with you—it just doesn’t seem fair. If we err, we ought to err on the side of caution. If he had been in jail 5 or 10 years and been let out and done wrong then the penitentiary would have still been there. But I would have been able to sleep at night,” said Sheriff McGee.