By Cindy Cunningham
Editors’ Note: This piece is cross posted and excerpted, with permission, from an article appearing in Blue Virginia, April 26, 2019.
There is only one single reported instance in the entire country of a juvenile sentenced to life without parole for a case not involving homicide or rape–and it wasn’t in a conservative place like Texas, Oklahoma, or Alabama; it was right here in progressive Arlington, Virginia.
As we head into these important elections for Commonwealth’s Attorneys this year, it’s a good time to check our values and beliefs about what constitutes justice. Especially when it comes to young people whose brains are not yet fully developed, people with mental illness who may or may not be properly medicated, and people struggling with addiction.
Virginia has no minimum age for arresting and prosecuting a child—there is nothing to prevent a five or six-year-old child from being arrested and charged with trespassing, assault, petty larceny, etc. And in Virginia, a 14-year-old can be tried as an adult for felonies, although bills introduced by Democrats that would have raised it to 16 were killed by Republicans.
So, what are your thoughts? At what age should we use the criminal justice system to address the behavior of children? Are there certain actions that are so serious that incarceration is the only acceptable outcome? And, since Virginia doesn’t have parole (except geriatric parole), under what circumstances if any should we put someone in prison for life for a crime he or she committed as a juvenile–do we believe people can be classified as irredeemable, and at what age? Finally, what about mental health and addiction–should we imprison people who commit crimes during a mental health crisis, or while under the influence of controlled substances?
The specific case in question involved a 16- year-old boy who stabbed a woman while trying to steal her car. Her liver was punctured, and she spent three days in the hospital but survived the attack. What sentence would you think is appropriate? What if you knew he had tried to rob someone else the day before at knifepoint?
The voluntary sentencing guidelines for such crimes is 7-11 years in prison, regardless of the age of the offender.
But there’s more. The boy had been hospitalized a year or two earlier and diagnosed with schizophrenia, but was not taking his prescribed medication. He wanted to steal the car because voices in his head told him he needed to get to New York. He was deemed “extremely psychotic” upon arrest, and had to be hospitalized before trial to “bring him up to competency.” How does that information affect the sentence you think he deserved?
The judge sentenced the boy to two life sentences plus 30 years.
Does that sound harsh to you? It is. In fact, it’s been found unconstitutional–violating the 8th Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment–to sentence a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole for non-homicide cases. Virginia only squeaks its way around that because it provides for a geriatric parole system, where the incarcerated can apply for parole after age 60, although it is granted in less than 5% of cases. Even before it was found unconstitutional, juveniles were rarely sentenced to life without parole for non-homicides. In fact, 21 states ban life without parole sentences for juveniles even for murder.
So, why did this boy receive such a severe sentence, much longer than the 7-11-year guideline? Several factors may have played a role. For one, the county prosecutor in the case requested the judge render a longer sentence than the guidelines because “he is the person in the community that everyone worries about when they’re driving alone…he is the kind of person who makes us feel unsafe.” Next, while in jail, no medication for his condition was provided and he denied the charges, showing no remorse during his sentencing hearing, despite having pleaded guilty a few months earlier. The Arlington Circuit Court judge angrily responded “It just went from 60 years to life!” The inability of law enforcement, prosecutors and judges to recognize and take into account the way that mental disorders affect the behavior of defendants is probably a reason that national studies have found that individuals with mental disorders spend four to seven times longer in jails and prisons than others charged with exactly the same crimes.
Lastly, the victim in this case was a 24-year old intern working in the very same Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, and who was dating an Arlington County Police detective. Did this play a role in the way the boy’s case was handled and the harsh sentence he received? (You might think that his defense lawyer should have brought that up. Or should have tried to use an insanity defense. But sadly not all lawyers are good at their jobs. His was caught shortly after this case embezzling from another client, and went to rehab for alcoholism.)
Is this what justice looks like? Is this how you want your criminal justice system to function? Should this boy spend the rest of his life in prison? His mother has been fighting for years to have him moved to a mental health institution, because prison is no place for someone with a mental illness. When he is on his medication, he becomes passive and is beaten and raped by other inmates. When he is off his medication, he becomes aggressive and endangers himself, other inmates, and guards.
Criminal justice reform is a very hot topic right now. The “tough on crime” era of the 1980s and 1990s has left us with mass incarceration, incredible racial disparities, and a prison system that is often serving as a poor substitute for urgently-needed mental health and addiction treatment options. As we think about reforms, and we look for elected officials like Commonwealth’s Attorneys who can lead the way on reforming their own offices and policies, it’s important to ask questions about issues such as these–for what offenses and what people committing those offenses is incarceration the best tool? What do we think are mitigating circumstances that should impact that decision? Or do we believe that we can and should be a more compassionate and humane society that treats children as children, that seeks mental health care for those with mental illnesses, that gets addiction treatment to those needing it? Is our system of criminal justice only based upon retribution or should it focus upon rehabilitation?