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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Life sentencing for juveniles no means of justice

    Shurid Sencolumnist
    Shurid Sen
    columnist

    This summer, I had the pleasure of meeting and working with Alan Senitt, a 27-year-old British citizen staying in Washington, D.C., learning about American politics to apply the lessons back at home. In London, he was known as an up-and-coming politician and activist, a leader in the Jewish community with connections to the British Parliament and Labour Party.

    Tragically, he was murdered one mid-July night in D.C., just four weeks after beginning his stay in the U.S. While walking a friend back to her apartment in the upscale Georgetown area, a relatively safe haven in a crime- and violence-ridden city, the couple was accosted. The girl was spared, but Alan’s life was viciously taken in his attackers’ attempt to steal a purse.

    The suspects were immediately apprehended, one of whom was a 15-year old. The other three ranged in age from 23 to 27. As the adults await trial, the verdict for the juvenile implicated in the case was issued last week, receiving a little more than five years for his part in the heinous act, and is to be in custody until he turns 21.

    Although why they charged the boy as a juvenile was not disclosed, the decision goes against previous statements from prosecutors, who had suggested they would seek to try the teen as an adult. Rather, the youth plead guilty to felony murder, conspiracy to commit robbery, armed robbery and theft, although the police have determined that he was not the killer.

    As painful and terrible as the crime is, and as necessary as it is to seek out justice on the behalf of Senitt, the truth is that an adult sentence for a juvenile would not have been justice at all. It was fortunate for the juvenile involved in this case to get the sentence he received, as it represents a victory for the reasoning behind the juvenile court system that has been eroded of late.

    A series of “”get tough”” laws instituted in the mid-1980s and early 1990s made it possible in most states to try juveniles for “”adult”” crimes, including attempted murder, the charge for this 15-year-old. This method of prosecution goes directly against the foundation of the juvenile court system in the late 19th century, which reasoned that juveniles were less culpable for their actions due to their immaturity and should therefore be rehabilitated rather than locked up.

    The Supreme Court issued a dubious ruling in 1989, in the midst of the “”get tough”” legislation, permitting the execution of 16- and 17-year-olds in Stanford v. Kentucky, and only last year did the Supreme Court find juvenile execution to be unconstitutional in Roper v. Simmons.

    Now, the treatment of juveniles as adults in criminal court usually leads to the pursuit of a life sentence without parole. About 2,200 people in the U.S. were serving life sentences without hope for parole for crimes they had committed before they turned 18, according to a 2005 Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report.

    This report also found that the U.S. was one of only four countries to have imposed such a sentence, along with Israel, South Africa and Tanzania. Those countries had a combined 11 juveniles imprisoned for life without parole.

    The staggering difference in our standard of justice compared with the rest of the world is appalling. These are people that aren’t even eligible to vote, gamble, smoke or drink because we deem them too psychologically incompetent.

    The responsibility that an adult should face for their actions is obvious here – those who were responsible for the murder of Senitt, and any other murder for that matter, should be subject to the penalties of a life sentence without parole, for a decision that was made in an adult frame of reference, for a decision that will forever affect the victims and their families.

    But the lifetime conviction for a juvenile who knows no more than a small fraction of life, at an age when the mind is malleable to both negative and positive influences, is a heinous crime in its own right, especially considering the prospects for the rehabilitation of a young mind.

    Suffice it to say that everyone loses in cases such as Senitt’s. A promising life was snuffed out before it really began, and a 15-year-old’s life path lies in the balance. In a statement to the court, Senitt’s cousin said, “”Take time to learn about the person you brutally took away from the world and hopefully gain some knowledge and direction on where you would like to be once your sentence is complete.””

    I can’t speak for Senitt, but judging from his life’s work, I think that’s the kind of compassion he would have embraced.

    Shurid Sen is a political science senior. He can be reached at
    letters@wildcat.arizona.edu

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