When I was younger, I was leery not just of the death penalty, but life without parole. When you're 14, the idea of being locked away for life seems potentially crueler than the death penalty, because when you're 14 life feels timeless -- like it will go on forever. Which makes the prison sentence also forever. And it ran contrary to my optimistic views about persons -- that they can reform and become healthy members of society.
It never really occurred to me that children would face that fate. But some kids are living my nightmare -- locked away for life for crimes (generally, but not always, murders) they committed as young as 14. Most of the kids are poor, most of the kids are people of color. Many come from appalling family and social backgrounds. The proponents of keeping them behind bars literally for their entire adult life consider this to be an argument in their favor: "Many of them have dysfunctional homes, and the crimes will escalate because there is no place to put them," argued one advocate. This, to me, is unbelievably heartless.
Kids aren't mini-adults. Even when a teenager commits an adult crime -- even when they're charged as adults, they're still not adults. America seems to have abandoned the goal of rehabilitating criminals. I don't think it can ethically do so when the subject is child offenders.