An element of the criminal justice system in the United States is that children are often sentenced to life without parole. This is not an uncommon event. And anyone who has briefly glimpsed crime-related journalism will have seen children sentenced as adults. It isn’t always life; even small children can be sentenced to ten or twenty years for property crimes where no bodily harm was caused. Americans take it for granted. Americans assume that this is a normal, acceptable behavior.
According to Juan Méndez, the United Nations expert on torture and cruel or inhumane punishment, the United States is the only country that routinely sends children to prison for life without parole. And if we are to believe his titles, the “special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment,” we are safe to say that life imprisonment for children can be considered cruel at the very least, torture at the most.
In fact, in many countries even life imprisonment is interpreted as inhumane and a violation of both international law and basic human rights. This is the case in the European Union, for the most part, as EU member states move toward normalizing maximum 30-year sentences. It has long been the case in Mexico, a state that also refuses to deport individuals without a promise they will not be executed.
Incidentally, life imprisonment is unnecessary for anyone. Not from a moral or ideological view, but from a practical view. After a certain period of incarceration – basically as soon as prisoners are old – the risk of reoffending drops drastically. This is true for crimes across the board, from assaults and robberies, to murders and rapes.
I recently reread A Clockwork Orange. Alex, the anti-hero of the story, is the epitome of the pathological criminal. He commits violence (ultra-violence, even) for the sheer joy of it. Supervised release for past crimes (probation) has no deterrent effect upon Alex. The standard prison system, violent guards and mandatory Christian services, only creates a venue for Alex to hone his psychopathy. When Alex is put into behaviorist conditioning program – a program that literally forces an aversion to violence – this too fails. In the end, Alex simply gets bored, grows out of violence and begins to think about having a family.
When A Clockwork Orange was released in the United States the final chapter, Alex’s mundane self-reformation, was excluded. The idea was that the American audience would not go for it. It is, admittedly, a flat ending. And when Stanley Kubrick made the A Clockwork Orange movie he also rejected the final chapter, citing the same objections plus one: it was unrealistic.
The interesting point, despite its lack of artistic merit, is that the ending of A Clockwork Orange was realistic. This is more or less exactly what happens with juvenile delinquents, both those caught and prosecuted for their crimes and for those who are never caught. They grow out of it. Even in the case of murderers, the released murderer has a lower likelihood of reoffending than mid-teens to mid-twenties without a criminal record. This means that any random young person on the street is more likely to commit a murder than a man or woman previously convicted of a homicide and released.
These are the facts, but they don’t fit the American punishment narrative. Despite all children being taught that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” the American criminal justice system is obsessed with doling out punishment. The actual effect of probations, paroles, jails, mandatory mental health facilities, and prisons is ignored. The cost upon society – it’s your taxes that pay for it – is secondary. The goal, first and foremost, is revenge thinly disguised as justice. And it is a revenge that, in almost all cases, does nothing to restore or heal the victim.
These are facts that also don’t fit the American confinement-for-safety narrative. Understanding the demographics of crime (the demographics the media ignores) is important. It immediately makes a controversial idea clear: there are people who, despite having committed crimes, including violent crimes, can safely be released into society.
This is a Western problem. But it is, disproportionately, an American problem. It is rare that you see Europeans imprisoned for decades for small property crimes. European states long ago discovered that the damage these individuals do is minimal and the cost of holding them is high. Instead of spending the money on prisons it is spent on different sectors. Health care, for example.
I don’t say this to illustrate the virtues of European prisons. As an abolitionist I oppose all prisons. I would like to see a modern Nestor Makhno march through the countrysides and raze prisons to the ground. Contrasting the American penal system to the rest of the world is simply to show that the American system is neither normal nor necessary in the context of the existing prison-as-correction paradigm. In a spectrum of abuses the American system is extreme and falls among the most abusive penal systems in the world.