High Court’s Decision in Miller v. Alabama is a Victory for Many, Especially in Communities of Color

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James BellThe W. Haywood Burns Institute  (BI) would like to congratulate our colleague Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative  and the legions of lawyers, advocates and families on their victory in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama. 

This decision will impact more than 2,000 young people of which 75 percent are youth of color. The decision specifically holds that young people convicted of homicide cannot mandatorily be sentenced to life without possibility of parole. While some headlines scream that “murderers” will go free, for those of us that live and work in communities of color, this decision is impactful and important.

In some communities of concentrated poverty across the country, the line between perpetrator and victim is easily traversed. Families of victims and convicted perpetrators are coming to grips with the facts of the new decision. The key elements of the decision involve important principles that are the cornerstone of our jurisprudential system. Those principles involve recognition of adolescent development and proportionality of sanctions. The Court recognizes that teenagers “lack of maturity, have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility…that can lead to recklessness, impulsivity and heedless risk-taking.”

Lifetime incarceration for children is wrong and should not be tolerated by civil society. Miller v. Alabama goes a long way toward making that a reality. All children, regardless of race, religion or ethnic background, are individuals with personal strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, the Court recognizes their immaturity and impulsivity and I would add that these young people are also often abused, ignored, uncared for, disempowered and frequently in a great deal of pain. The Court ruled that a mandatory life sentence for a young person denies their basic humanity.

This decision also gives us an opportunity to examine the use of incarceration as an instrument of social control. In that vein, the overuse of incarceration for young people as a first resort, the current high levels of recidivism and the endless amount of dollars being spent should always be discussed. Heretofore, we as a country were willing to pay any price we believed was necessary for a seductive but hollow phrase; law and order. And pay we did. Between 1971 and 1990, the expenditures for incarceration increased a whopping 313 percent.

During those years we instituted a War on Drugs (brilliantly detailed in Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow), waged a similar war on children by criminalizing normal adolescent behavior, and became the world’s largest jailer. There is a better way and the Miller decision is a good foundation to move forward with humanity and decency.

At the Burns Institute, we are working on an agenda of humanity and decency that is part of a strength-based approach to children’s basic needs regardless of circumstance. We can reduce crime and the need for life without parole for young people by redefining what youth serving systems should provide. Young people have fundamental rights as human beings that must be adhered to by all systems. We must move to a frame that emphasizes child well being as the preferred method of crime prevention.

Good service provision demands that a youth be involved with a positive, consistent caring adult in their lives. The administration of justice demands that we be creative in order to change the balance of power regarding decisions about who will be the keeper and who will be the kept, who will be servers and who will be the served, and who will suffer abuse and who will be protected from harm.

Thanks to the Miller decision — we are one step closer to a justice system that is equitable and restorative.