When Did America Give Up Hope?

There is another case currently before the Supreme Court besides the ‘Obamacare’ one and it speaks to a fundamental question for America: when did it give up hope?

The case involves two children sentenced to life without parole, one of whom murdered someone, and the other was an accessory, when they were 14. America has been up there with Iran in its treatment of child offenders — it led the world in executions of children until 2005 when the Supreme Court ruled against.

There are around 80 boys now locked up for life for crimes committed when they were 13 or 14. Around 2,300 juveniles across the United States have been sentenced to life without parole.

America is among a tiny minority of countries (Somalia is another) that have refused to sign up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that expressly forbids locking up those under 18 for life.

Hearing the case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made this observation:

“You’re making a 14-year-old throwaway person.”

Kent Holt, an assistant Arkansas attorney general, who is defending the sentencing, objected. He cited a 1979 Arkansas commuted case and said that 30 such requests had been granted in the five years before.

Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer arguing against the sentencing and also the lawyer in the child executions case before the Supreme Court, clarified. In Arkansas, commutations had become rare in the last 30 years, he said. Since 2007, there has been only one.

Hope is the issue

Are these kids without potential redemption? Stevenson argues no, it is possible, and to prove it he provided testimony from those who had committed terrible crimes when children, including from former child soldiers, yet had completely redeemed themselves. He also presented the evidence plain to any parent, that teenagers are different from adults because their brains haven’t fully developed and thus lack impulse control and judgment.

Two years ago in Graham v. Florida, which involved life without parole sentences for juveniles in crimes other than homicide, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion:

“Life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope.”

At a TED talk earlier this month, Stevenson spoke in one of their most highly praised talks and received one of their biggest receptions ever at that intellectually luminous event.

He said that if we don’t talk about our worst problems, such as what we are doing when we say some children are ‘devils,’ ‘monsters,’ ‘predators,’ irredeemable ‘other,’ America’s very identity is at risk:

“If we don’t care about these things, then the positive things we believe are implicated too. Our hopeful, forward-looking realities are always shadowed by suffering, abuse, degradation, marginalization. Don’t always just be attentive to the bright and dazzling things but also to the dark and depressing things.”

We live in a country that embraced slavery, he said, where after reconstruction and through Jim Crow a huge part of the population was subject to terrorism, to constant threats of being lynched and fire-bombed. But we don’t like to talk about it:

“We don’t understand what it is to have done what we’ve done.”

In South Africa, after apartheid ended, there was an extended process of truth and reconciliation, but here in America, at the end of slavery nor after the passage of the Civil Rights Act: nothing.

Stevenson gave a lecture in Germany and someone said to him, “We can never have the death penalty in Germany…. There is no way, with our history, we could engage in the systematic execution of human beings. It would be unconscionable.”

Imagine if in Germany today there was a death row, and that Jewish people were systematically more likely to be convicted. And yet here in this country, in the states of the Old South, a defendant is 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white, and 22 times more likely if the defendant is black.

He told the story of how in the middle of a case where a judge ruled that a 14-year-old was fit to stand trial as an adult he wondered, “How can a judge turn a child into an adult? The judge must have magic powers.” So, late at night and very tired, he worked on a motion to ask that his 14-year-old poor black male client be tried as a wealthy privileged 70-year-old white male. He wrote a searing critique and went to bed. He woke up and realized: he’d hit Send.

Months later, he went to court, wondering what the judge would say. On the way there he met a janitor, who found out he was a lawyer. The janitor hugged him and said he was proud of him. Then Stevenson went into court, and the judge was furious. Inside the court, people were angry: “Angry that we were talking about race, and poverty, and inequality.”

The janitor had come in and sat behind him, and at recess a deputy demanded to know what a janitor was doing there. The janitor replied, “I came into this courtroom to tell this young man, ‘Keep your eyes on the prize, and hold on.’”

Today, Stevenson wants to tell us, “All of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone,” and we can not be fully evolved human beings until we care about justice for all and are truly willing to confront our difficult past.

Watch Bryan Stevenson’s compelling TED Talk:

Related stories:

11-Year-Old Sues School District Over Drug Tests

Do Police Officers Belong In America’s High Schools?

Why Is Maryland Spending $100 Million To Lock Up Its Youth?

Picture of Bryan Stevenson, source TED Talks


Michael M.
Michael M5 years ago

Americans gave up hope when they let ignorant t-baggers and other assorted RWNJ's take over their lives.
Repukes actually never 'gave up'... They are just so stupid they have no idea how pathetic their lives are and until Limpballs tells them to give up hope, they will continue to live in their bubble of ignorance!

Debbie L.
Debbie Lim5 years ago

I don't consider age a good definition for adult, nor adult a good reason to judge someone. Sometimes a 14 yo can be more mature and smart than an 18 or 19 yo. It has nothing to do with age. To be convicted with life in prison must mean that they committed a horrible crime, most probably murder, and I don't think they could've been stupid enough to do something of the like without knowing exactly what the consequences will be. There's news, movies, books, TV and all sorts of other media out there that shows you that murdering is bad and has severe consequences. I highly doubt a 14 yo doesn't know that. I don't believe they are stupid, nor are they unable to control their impulses. Maybe life in prison is too severe and they should still have a chance, but I don't agree that we shouldn't put them in jail just because they're under 18. And of course, race, social status and everything has nothing to do with the judgement.

federico bortoletto

grazie per l'articolo.

Cindy B.
Cindy B5 years ago

Sheesh, not again. Why did they get rid of that helpful "counter!"


...can be true for adults, pity the poor KID without even the benefit of much life experience.

That said, I've met certain kids who were vacuous, incorrigible little monsters, committing crime after crime despite being given chance after chance. Are those kids the most tragic victims of all? I believe they are, but they still must be separated from the rest of us. It comes down to pure triage for the society.

Cindy B.
Cindy B5 years ago

I am against throwing, say, a 14yo, even an 18yo, child in prison for life without parole no matter how heinous the crime. All psych studies show that a child's brain is still growing and changing throughout the teens. The main areas involved are the ones regulating what you might call the kid's "autopilot." The autopilot (my term) compiles everything a person's ever been exposed to from birth onward, helping create the "instincts" that govern appropriate behavior as well as the strength and continuity of one's sense of personal identity. There's a set of related disorders loosely labelled as "borderline personality disorder," in which the "identity" bifurcates, or dissociates into various sub-identities. It's especially prevalent in kids who were abused in the youth and teenage years. Eating disorders, self-harm behavior, wildly unstable emotions and severe social dysfunction often ensue. It's a complex topic, but in short, these changes often develop during the teenage years in patterns that PROVE the brain is still changing and forming new basic functional patterns during that time (this was once thought to be complete at around 7yo).

As we all know, even ADULTS can be very dysfunctional. These adults often got shortchanged in both nature and nurture -- a double whammy! In the mental health system you see this all the time.... Poorly competent adults, who were also RAISED badly to boot, because of the problems their parents had! If this can be true for ad

KS Goh
KS Goh5 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Sam Richardson

Arguments like "lack impulse controls and judgement" is the kind of shit that allows rapists to walk free, so excuse me if I'm not sorry that people that MURDERED another person were sentenced for life. Adults like to think that kids are stupid, but 14 is far from the 8 year old still asking a million questions about the world. Teenagers are fully in command of their sentences, and they know what they did was wrong.

However, a case can be made that later in life, they could redeem themselves. It sure as hell isn't going to be something that happens overnight.

Richard T.
Richard T5 years ago

Thank you!

Marie W.
Marie W5 years ago

Dumbed down also means less rights.

Jason S.
Jason S5 years ago

Good Posting, Thanks