juvenile law

Sentencing children to death-in-prison

The Utah Supreme Court ruled this week that it was constitutional to sentence a child to life in prison without parole. The majority’s reasoning in State v. Houston, 2015 UT 36, is sound, but I still can’t help but feel that the result is incorrect.

The story of Robert Cameron Houston is as heartbreaking as it is violent and horrifying. He was born with a deformed ear that left him partially deaf and made it hard for him to learn to talk. He was bullied because of his ear and his weight, and his father abused him physically and verbally. When he was only eight years old, Robert tried to commit suicide for the first time. At age twelve, his brother’s friend sexually abused him for several months. ¶ 5.

Then, at age fourteen, a shift occurred in Robert’s life. Instead of being the one who was bullied, abused, and raped, he became the aggressor. He attempted to rape his stepsister. The next year he attempted to rape his aunt. He pled guilty in both cases and was placed in a treatment facility for juvenile sex offenders, where he attempted to rape a staff worker. ¶ 6.

In 2006, when Robert was seventeen years old, a staff worker at the treatment center broke protocol to give him a ride the independent living home where he was staying. When they got inside, Robert raped and killed her. The details are highly disturbing, and the Utah Supreme Court does not flinch in its summary of the events. ¶¶ 8–9.

After reading the background section of the opinion I was struck with two seemingly contradictory conclusions: Robert was a monster, but he was also a child. Part of him was able to commit a brutal rape and murder, but another part of him seems to be genuinely horrified by the screaming of his victim.

The question I’m left with is, what do we do when a child is so dangerous that we can’t let him be free?

The majority’s opinion carefully analyzes all of Robert’s constitutional challenges and other claims. There is also an excellent examination of rule 22(e) of the Utah Rules of Criminal Procedure, which states that the “court may correct an illegal sentence, or a sentence imposed in an illegal manner, at any time.” ¶¶ 18–28The part of the opinion that gives me pause, however, is the determination that sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without parole is not cruel and unusual and does not violate the Utah or federal constitutions. ¶ 67. Justice Durham wrote a fantastic dissent in which she stated, “In my view, the diminished culpability of juveniles, combined with the exceeding harshness and irreversible nature of [life in prison without parole], makes this sentence unconstitutionally disproportionate and inconsistent with the ‘evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’” ¶ 213 quoting Trop v. Dulles, 365 U.S. 86, 101 (1958).

This is still an unsettled area of constitutional law, and the majority does a fine job describing the current contours. But taking a longer view of this, I think the reasoning in Justice Durham’s dissent will eventually win the day. She makes the following lucid points, to which I will add my thoughts:

1. Children’s brains are not fully developed. ¶ 259.

The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the overwhelming scientific evidence that children often make horrible decisions because their brains are not fully developed. I find it ironic that one of the justifications for trying children as adults is that their crimes were so serious. When a child commits a serious crime it is only further evidence that the child’s reasoning capabilities are diminished. The more heinous the crime, the more evidence that the child’s mind in underdeveloped. In the case of Robert, the senselessness of the violence he committed is further evidence that he was operating with the mind of a child. Sentencing him in the same way that we sentence an adult is disproportionate.

2. Children are more vulnerable to negative influences. ¶ 261.

I think this is particularly true in Robert’s case. Through the rape and abuse that he suffered, his young mind was molded into seeing the world from that perspective. While his crimes are abhorrent and unjustifiable under any circumstances, it is possible to understand why he felt the compulsion to rape and murder. The fact that his young mind was clearly exhibiting the negative influences in his life is further evidence that his sentence was disproportionate.

3. A child’s character is less fixed than an adult. ¶ 262.

Children still have time to change. Part of what is wonderful about children is their vast potential and the hopes that we have for them. This, however, brings me back to my original question, what do we do when a child is so dangerous that we can’t let them be free? What happens when we don’t have any hope that a child can change?

I don’t know what the answer is, but it certainly isn’t life in prison without parole. When we, as a society do this, we are stating that we are absolutely confident that the child will never be able to change. But if we are so certain that the child will never change, then why don’t we just execute the child? Life in prison without parole is, in effect, death by incarceration. Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has referred to it as a death-in-prison sentence.

I don’t think anyone can be that confident, even when the crimes are as horrific and frightening as the rape and murder that Robert committed. So, while I understand and appreciate the reasoning of the majority in State v. Houston, I think Justice Durham makes the better argument. This case makes my heart break—for Robert, for his victim, and for our society that has not yet learned how to properly address these kinds of tragedies.