15 to Life: How Young Is Too Young to Be Sentenced to Life in Prison?

July 22, 2014  |  

The United States is a country that has built its reputation on being “tough on crime.” Despite the media attention on rampant shootings and violence in cities across the country, violent crime in America is nearing historic lows. Though crime has decreased, the U.S. continues to lockup large numbers of its people, resulting in the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Until recently, teenagers who committed crimes were subject to harsh sentencing, which included both the death penalty and life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty was forbidden for those under 18, and in 2012 the high court found sentencing juveniles to life without parole was also unconstitutional. Unfortunately, that didn’t prevent more than 2,500 teens from being sentenced to life before the rulings were handed down.

Kenneth Young is one of those teens. When he was just 14, Young committed four armed robberies under the influence of his mother’s 24-year-old drug dealer. Although no one was killed during the robberies and it was his first brush with the law, Young was convicted and sentenced to four consecutive life sentences—guaranteeing he would never see the outside of a prison again.

While he serves his sentence, Young, now 26, has worked hard to turn his life around. “I have lived with regret every day … I have been incarcerated for 11 years and I have taken advantage of every opportunity available for me in prison to better myself,” Young told the court during a hearing on his harsh sentence. “I am no longer the same person I used to be.”

After the Supreme Court Ruling made such sentencing unconstitutional for minors, a lawyer took on Young’s case to ask the court to reconsider his life sentence. The entire process was documented in the upcoming film “15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story,” which will air on PBS in August.

Peep the synopsis of the film:

“15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story follows the young African-American man’s battle for release, after more than 10 years of incarceration, much of it spent in solitary confinement. The film is also a disturbing portrait of an extraordinary fact: The United States is the only country in the world that condemns juveniles to life without parole.

“Kenneth’s sentence was not a rarity. As 15 to Life shows, there are more than 2,500 juveniles serving life sentences in the United States for non-lethal crimes, as well as for murder. In the 1990s, many states reacted to a rise in violent youth crimes by amending their laws to allow more juveniles to be tried as adults. Then, in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that life sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder were unconstitutional. That made 77 Florida inmates, including Kenneth, eligible for early release. But how would the Florida courts, historically in favor of juvenile life sentences, apply the Supreme Court decision to a decade-old case?”

15 Years to Life, takes viewers inside the juvenile justice system to see whether or not locking kids up for the rest of their lives can really be considered justice.

15 Years to Life will air on PBS on August 4. Check your local listings and watch the trailer below.

What do you think? Should juveniles be sentenced as adults?

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