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Government & Politics

SPA Professor and Student Publish Legal Argument Against Juvenile “Death by Incarceration”

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Johnson & Tabriz

Dead kids walking. That’s how Justice, Law and Society professor Robert Johnson and student Sonia Tabriz, SPA/BA and CAS/BA ’10, refer to the nearly 2,500 juveniles currently living out life without parole sentences – otherwise known as “death by incarceration.”

“We have the highest incarceration rate in the world," said Johnson. “And the U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life without parole. It’s an important justice and human rights issue.”

Soon, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether juveniles like 12-year-old Jordan Brown, now awaiting trial for murdering his pregnant stepmother, should be eligible to receive life without parole. Johnson and Tabriz have crafted a compelling legal argument, recently published in a Maryland law journal, against this irrevocable sentence. An op-ed entitled Dead Kids Walking, now circulating widely on the Web, lays it out in even bolder terms.

“Children should never be sentenced to prison for life, period,” write coauthors Johnson and Tabriz.

“How can anyone believe that juveniles—mere children, developmentally and under the law—deserve to be sentenced to decades of empty confinement ended only by their deaths? And, further, how can anyone believe that that there is no hope for change, reform, and ultimately forgiveness for these children?”

Their arguments largely hinge on Roper v. Simmons (2005). In this landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to subject youth to the death penalty, invoking the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. According to the Court’s ruling, juveniles’ inherent immaturity makes them less culpable for their crimes and less easily deterred by the threat of punishment.

“It’s proven biologically – juveniles’ brains are not fully developed,” said Tabriz. “There are laws predicated on that. Young people can’t vote; they can’t drink.

Johnson and Tabriz take the argument a step further: Sentencing juveniles to life without parole is a “death sentence in its own right.” “For juveniles, [the] killing process will likely unfold over decades of confinement, perhaps seven or even eight decades – the empty, painful, and debilitating existence that is the essence of imprisonment in America,” according to the coauthors.

The journal article is the culmination of four years of intense collaboration between the undergrad and professor. During her first semester at AU, Tabriz took a class with Johnson and asked him to arrange a tour of a Baltimore prison.

“I didn’t know how to cope with what I witnessed there, so wrote a story about it.” The story got published in a literary magazine Johnson oversees. “We’ve been working together nonstop ever since,” said Tabriz. “We meet twice a week to keep up. And I even taught Professor Johnson how to use Google-chat to take the place of meetings over the summer.”

Tabriz also helped Johnson co-edit a book entitled Lethal Rejection: Stories on Crime and Punishment, featuring writing by AU students as well as fiction by prisoners and other writers.

While Johnson often mentors students, “it was really a unique collaboration with Sonia because of her talents and her drive,” said Johnson. “Sonia has a fine way with words and a good eye for sharpening text. She truly had more dedication than I would have imagined or ever asked of anyone. I know she worked 30 or more hours a week on our projects.” Tabriz was honored for her hard work; she received AU's 2010 Student Award for Outstanding Scholarship at the undergraduate level.

The pair’s latest project, editing the fifth and final edition of Life Without Parole: Living in Prison Today was a heavy-hearted task. The original book and its subsequent editions were written by former prisoner Victor Hassinewho recently hanged himself in his cell after learning he would not get a parole board hearing.

“We are revamping the entire book to be a commentary on not just living in prison, but dying in prison,” said Tabriz. The book will be published by Oxford University Press as soon as this winter.

Tabriz will go on to law school in the fall to gain “more power to influence the system,” not the least of which is the issue of juveniles serving adult sentences, the student said. “Even one is too many in my opinion.”