Using discretion when sentencing vulnerable populations can be more just, and lead to less harsh, lifelong sentences being meted out. However, in the U.S., there is a very high number of Life Without the Possibility of Parole inmates, and many of them are disabled.
In July of 2003, Evan Miller (age 14) and Colby Smith (age 16) murdered Cole Cannon (age 52) at his residence in an Alabama trailer park. Evan was Cole’s neighbor. The crime started when the two boys stole baseball cards from Cole on the afternoon of July 15th, and continued through the night until 6 am, as the boys made trips from Evan’s trailer back to Cole’s trailer to rob and beat him. The two boys beat Cole with their fists and a baseball bat, and stole money from him, then set fire to the trailer with Cole inside. He died from blunt force trauma, rib fractures and smoke inhalation.
Colby Smith pleaded guilty to Felony Murder and received a sentence of Life With Parole. 14 year old Evan Miller was initially charged as a juvenile but his case was moved to adult court, where he was tried as an adult and sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole for Capital Murder and Arson.
Growing up, Evan was in and out of foster care. His mother was a drug user and an alcoholic who worked 16 hour days and consequently neglected him. His stepfather was violently abusive, and Evan tried to kill himself several times, starting when he was around 5 years old. He was diagnosed with conduct disorder, anti-social personality disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and other disabilities. He also had issues with substance abuse.
After the trial, Miller “filed a post trial motion for a new trial, arguing that sentencing a 14-year-old to life without the possibility of parole constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eight Amendment.”
The case went to the Supreme Court under the name Miller v. Alabama. In 2012, the court decided that “The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment ‘guarantees individuals the right to not be subjected to excessive sanctions.’ Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551, 560. That right ‘flows from the basic precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned’ to both the offender and the offense.”
Juveniles, Disability, and Abuse
The judge who initially sentenced Evan Miller was unable to use discretion, and instead had to apply a mandatory minimum sentence, which was Life Without the Possibility of Parole. Miller v. Alabama states that a judge has to be able to use discretion when sentencing juveniles, and that mandatory Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. Juvenile cases are different from that of adults. Reasons are (from the Supreme Court decision):
- Juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform
- Juveniles have a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility
- Juveniles are more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures
- They have limited control over their environment
- There is a lack of ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings
- There is a difference between adult and juvenile minds
- Juveniles are less likely to develop entrenched patterns of behavior
As a result of the Supreme Court decision, Evan Miller will be resentenced. Since his conviction, he has been doing well in prison and is learning welding. He has apologized to the victim’s family. He is now 28 years old.
Evan Miller’s environment and experiences growing up clearly fit the concept of a child having “an inability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings”. It is not surprising that someone from his background would have serious trouble with the law.
Neglect and abuse can cause disabilities in children, and in Evan’s case, this is what happened. The treatment he received from the adults in his life caused severe psychiatric disability, and taught him to be violent. High numbers of juveniles sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole had a similar life trajectory. From The Sentencing Project regarding juveniles given this sentence:
- 79% witnessed violence in their homes regularly
- 32% grew up in public housing
- 40% had been enrolled in special education classes
- Fewer than half were attending school at the time of their offense
- 47% were physically abused
- 80% of girls reported histories of physical abuse and 77% of girls reported histories of sexual abuse
The United States is the only country in the world which sentences minors to die in prison, some as young as 13 or 14 years old, using LWOP. Things are changing very slowly with Miller v. Alabama, and 12 states have outlawed LWOP sentences for juveniles. But thousands have already been sentenced, and face uncertain resentencing. In Missouri, those sentenced to LWOP as juveniles have routinely been denied parole, despite the passage of Miller v. Alabama. A lawsuit has been filed.
Many of these juveniles have disabilities. Abuse, neglect and poverty cause disability. Disabled children are more likely to be abused. There are many reasons that incarceration and LWOP are disability issues.
Having a cognitive disability can cause someone to give a false confession or otherwise become entangled in the criminal justice system due to bias and a lack of understanding about their disability. According to the ARC (Association for Retarded Citizens): While those with intellectual disability comprise 2% to 3% of the general population, they represent 4% to 10% of the prison population, with an even greater number of those in juvenile facilities and in jails (Petersilia, 2000).
Rising LWOP Sentences
The numbers of LWOP sentences have risen exponentially since the 1980s while crime has dropped. Thousands of those with LWOP sentences were convicted of non-violent crimes. According to Forbes: Violent crime has been steadily dropping since its peak in 1991, while the murder rate is now approximately half as high as in 1991. Nevertheless, the number of people serving life sentences and life without parole in particular, has continued to rise.
Many of those with LWOP sentences, which has replaced the death penalty, are disabled. From the Bureau of Justice Statistics:
- An estimated 32% of prisoners and 40% of jail inmates reported having at least one disability.
- Prisoners were nearly 3 times more likely and jail inmates were more than 4 times more likely than the general population to report having at least one disability.
- About 2 in 10 prisoners and 3 in 10 jail inmates reported having a cognitive disability, the most common reported disability in each population .
- Female prisoners were more likely than male prisoners to report having a cognitive disability, but were equally likely to report having each of the other five disabilities.
- Non-Hispanic white prisoners (37%) and prisoners of two or more races (42%) were more likely than non-Hispanic black prisoners (26%) to report having at least one disability.
- More than half of prisoners (54%) and jail inmates (53%) with a disability reported a co-occurring chronic condition.
While it does make sense for someone like Evan Miller, who committed a violent crime, to spend time behind bars, it also makes sense that the courts view juveniles differently from adults and do not apply one-size-fits-all mandatory sentencing. Looking at reasons that a disabled person, in particular, an intellectually or cognitively disabled person, might become involved in a crime should also be applied during sentencing.
It is important for everyone involved in law and criminal justice to have disability studies based training, and to learn to view disability as not being a defect, or part of the normal vs. abnormal binary, but as being an aspect of biodiversity that is complex, and to disregard old fashioned ideas and biases. It is my suspicion that one reason that so many disabled people are in prison for life is because there is little discretion applied to their case, and often they do not have the right access in order to participate in their own trial. Disabled people can have trouble understanding their arrest, and if there is an interrogation, that can also be an issue with access. I think that many disabled people are also taken advantage of and targeted by criminals who use them.
The problem of why disability is so highly represented among LWOP inmates should be of concern. There are many complex reasons that disability is over represented in the criminal justice system, but infusing criminal justice with a disability studies perspective could potentially lead to less disabled people being given LWOP sentences.