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Report says racial disparities exist in juveniles serving life

Holbrook Mohr

JACKSON, Miss. — Most juveniles sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in Mississippi are black, a disparity that underscores the need to reform sentencing guidelines, according to a report by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Poverty, lack of education and broken homes are among other traits shared by youngsters sentenced to spend the rest of their lives behind bars, the report said.

Twenty of the 26 people currently serving life without parole after being convicted as juveniles in Mississippi are black, according to the 28-page report released last week. Blacks make up about 37 percent of Mississippi’s population, but comprise nearly 80 percent of the juvenile offenders serving life sentences.

Research is underway to determine if similar percentages of juvenile minorities are sentenced to life without parole in other states, but the Legal Defense Fund report focused solely on Mississippi, said Holly Thomas, assistant counsel for the organization.

“We tried to look at Mississippi as a microcosm of a larger issue,” Thomas said.

Mississippi is one of 42 states that allows juveniles convicted of murder to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, Thomas said. Mississippi laws allow the sentences to be imposed on children as young as 13. Ten states allow children of any age to be sentenced to life without parole, the report said.

“In every state with juvenile life without parole sentencing, African Americans are disproportionately represented among offenders receiving such sentences,” the report says.

If a juvenile is convicted in Mississippi of capital murder, which is defined as a murder committed during the commission of another felony, a life sentence is mandatory, said Philip W. Broadhead, a clinical professor with the National Center for Justice and the Rule of Law who works with the University of Mississippi School of Law.

The office of Lafayette County District Attorney Ben Creekmore, former president of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association, said there are generally three sentencing options in a capital murder case: death, life and life without parole.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that people convicted as juveniles cannot be executed, and Mississippi’s strict truth in sentencing laws passed in 1994 don’t allow for parole in capital murder convictions, the report said.

“There was a ruling handed down by the United States Supreme Court a few years ago that outlawed putting juveniles to death, and in Mississippi there’s really only one alternative in a capital murder case, and that’s life without parole,” Broadhead said.

Some Mississippi lawmakers attempted to push through bills in the past two legislative sessions that would have given judges more discretion in sentencing juveniles. The effort, inspired by the case of Tyler Edmonds, failed both times.

Edmonds, who is white, was convicted in 2004 of murdering his half-sister’s husband when he was just 13. Edmonds’ conviction was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court. A new trial is scheduled for October. His half-sister, Kristi Fulgham, also was convicted of capital murder in the case and was sentenced to death.

Five of the men in Mississippi who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles were originally sentenced to death, the report said. Their sentences were changed to life in 2005 when the Supreme Court decided it is unconstitutional to execute juvenile offenders.

The Legal Defense Fund says life without parole is still too harsh a sentence for youngsters. The group wants judges to have more discretion in sentencing youth offenders, saying rehabilitation would provide them a second chance at life.

“While there is no doubt that everyone should be held responsible for their actions, a sentence which denies a child any opportunity for reform is simply unjust,” Legal Defense President John Payton said in a statement.

(Associated Press)