by Max Brantley
Today Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas (R) signed into law SB 294, the Fair Sentencing of Minors Act, making Arkansas the 18th state to ban life without parole sentences for children. State Senator Missy Irvin (R), State Representative Rebecca Petty (R), and State Representative Greg Leding, (D), championed the Fair Sentencing of Minors Act in the Arkansas legislature.
SB 294 not only bans life without parole sentences for children in the future, but also provides more than 100 people told as children they would die in prison the opportunity to go before the Arkansas parole board to demonstrate they are deserving of a second chance. The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth (CFSY) worked closely with legislators to ensure SB 294 passed the Arkansas state legislature with broad bi-partisan support.
“SB 294 ensures that we hold our children accountable for serious crimes they commit in more fair and age-appropriate ways while protecting public safety” said Senator Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View). “This is a proud day for Arkansas, affirming our collective belief that no child should ever be denied hope or love from our society and that there is no such thing as a throw away child. My faith teaches that all of us, especially our children, can find salvation and redemption. Our law now reflects this important biblical teaching by providing hope of a second chance to children who demonstrate that they are more than their worst act.”
Influenced by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions grounded in adolescent development research holding that children are “constitutionally different” from adults and should not be subject to the country’s harshest penalties, the nation has increasingly moved away from life-without-parole sentences for children. In five years, the number of states that ban life-without-parole sentences for children has nearly quadrupled to a total of 18 and the District of Columbia. An additional four states ban life-without-parole sentences for children in most cases.
“Today’s victory in Arkansas reflects the recent groundswell of support for abolishing death-in-prison sentences for children,” said Jody Kent Lavy, executive director at CFSY. “Most importantly, it brings hope to those told as children they were worth nothing more than dying in prison.”
Consistent with patterns documented throughout the justice system, these draconian sentences disproportionately impact children of color. According to Human Rights Watch, African American youth are sentenced to life-without- parole as children at a per capita rate that is 10 times that of white youth. Research by the Sentencing Project has also shown that most children who are serving life-without-parole sentences have suffered extreme trauma and abuse. More than 80 percent of kids serving life witnessed violence in their homes and neighborhoods on a regular basis. More than 50 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls were physically abused; More than 20 percent of boys and 77 percent of girls were sexually abused.
“Like many of the people serving these sentences, I experienced severe abuse and neglect as a child and joined a gang for a sense of family,” said Xavier McElrath-Bey, a former incarcerated youth and now youth justice advocate at CFSY. “At age 13, I was responsible for the tragic death of another child. I spent 13 years in prison. I learned my lesson and grew into a remorseful adult. Today, at age 41, I am living proof that no child is beyond redemption, which is why youth should never be sentenced to die in prison.”
The Arkansas bill does not guarantee release to anyone currently serving a life sentence, but rather allows individuals who were convicted of crimes as children to be considered for parole based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. In short, Arkansas children who are convicted of crimes will now too have the opportunity to prove their capacity for change and that they are deserving of a second chance to live in free society.
The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth is a national coalition and clearinghouse that leads, coordinates, develops and supports efforts to implement fair and age-appropriate sentences for youth, with a focus on abolishing life without parole sentences for youth. We provide technical assistance on strategic communications, litigation and advocacy to attorneys, advocates, organizers and others working at the state and federal levels.