VOICES OF COLOR

Life without parole: stealing kids’ lives in Mississippi

PHOTO: bernco.gov
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As a court employee, I am aware of the inequalities in our criminal system. One that riles me is condemning juvenile offenders, those younger than 18 years old, to life without parole (LWOP). It is a vicious, racist practice that should be ended. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court recommended that such sentences be rare. This hasn’t stopped Mississippi from locking up children for the remainder of their lives.

The great civil rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer, stated “Mississippi is America’s problem,” meaning that the troubles of this Southern state exist because the country allows them. The nation’s top court permits Mississippi’s approach to the punishment of children. Since the 2012 ruling, the state has sentenced eight youths to grow up in prison, never to be freed. All but one is Black. In the 23 states that have not yet banned juvenile LWOP, it is used against Black kids 10 times more often than against white ones. As a Chicana, this racism infuriates me.

Contrary to what we have been told, we do not need tough-on-crime laws to curb a mythical threat of growing violence by teens. And unjust prison terms do not work. Instead, they add to our country’s massive and costly prison population. The industry invested in detention lobbied for these policies because of their bottom line. As the prison population grows, so does their profit.

It is sinister how this practice has resulted in locking up poor people of color. This is happening at a time when there are severe cuts to public education and social services, vital to helping children thrive. There is no justice in maintaining this systemic racism. And there is no justice in condemning adolescents to live out their lives behind bars so a corporation can make huge earnings.

Profit is the driving force of capitalism. It is why a prison industrial complex exists. Privatized punishment — what a concept! Capitalism is also the root cause of racism. This economic model instituted discrimination and inequality to benefit commercial interests — at the expense of human well-being.

The Sentencing Project is doing a lot to outlaw LWOP. They have pushed for much-needed reforms with some success. Juvenile offenders are no longer given the death penalty, for example. We can help their efforts by standing up against life without parole sentencing for everyone, especially young folk. Find out more at sentencingproject.org.

We can also help build a multi-racial movement to end the for-profit prison industry. Divert money earmarked for detention to improve people’s lives instead. Let’s fund schools, job training, and rehabilitation, for a start. Work against racism and to give poor children of color a chance at a decent existence, outside the horrors of prison.

Christina López is a leader in the Comrades of Color Caucus, which includes Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women members. Contact her at cglopez@mindspring.com.

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