Juveniles Are Really Just Kids

So the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it’s unconstitutional to sentence children to mandatory life in prison without parole.

It’s stunning that we need a court decision to rule on such an obvious violation of human rights, but there it is. Of course, in the actual decision, the court used the term “juveniles” rather than children, but let’s make no mistake here: These are kids, mostly boys, from their underdeveloped brains to the peach fuzz still forming on their cheeks.

In light of the ruling, legal experts around the country are revisiting the cases of hundreds of inmates sentenced to life for crimes they committed before they were legally adults.

In Jacksonville, we have Joshua Phillips, convicted in the 1998 killing of 8-year-old Maddie Clifton. He was 14 at the time of the crime, without a record, and with no previous incidents to indicate a propensity for violence, though there were some allegations that his father was abusive. His age spared him the death penalty, but he was sentenced to life in prison.

Phillips admitted to killing Maddie. He claims he accidentally hit her with a baseball, then beat her to death when she threatened to tell on him. He hid her body under his bed.

During the height of the media frenzy surrounding this crime, Bob Snell — then this magazine’s editor — wrote an editorial rejecting the idea that the Phillips case indicated any increase in criminal activity among area juveniles. (Full disclosure: Snell is my husband.) Joshua Phillips was — is — an anomaly. He represents the terrible, tragic confluence of a troubled childhood and pure chance. The idea that he should pay for that with a life in prison seems unconscionable. It is, quite simply, unjust.

The victims, or relatives of the victims, rightly assert that someone must pay, and they’re right. Certainly, in this case, Phillips must serve a sentence. But since when do we allow victims to determine the punishment of perpetrators? It makes no sense. As a mother, I can imagine the irrational, vicious methods of torture I’d want to inflict on anyone who harmed my child. But that’s not what justice is about.

And now we have the case of Cristian Fernandez, charged with first-degree murder in the death of his 2-year-old brother. Cristian was 12 when he allegedly slammed the toddler’s head against a bookcase. The boys’ mother, Biannela Susana, waited eight hours before seeking help. She pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter.

By now the details of Cristian’s short, sordid life have been revealed and analyzed, but they’re worth repeating. Biannela Susana was 13 when she became impregnated by a 20-year-old man who later claimed the girl seduced him. She gave birth to Cristian; at one point, the two were in foster care together.

When she was old enough, Susana married a man who beat both her and her son. After authorities began investigating the source of bruises on the boy’s face, the man shot himself in front of the family.

By then Susana had three children, and she moved to Jacksonville. When Cristian began to exhibit abusive behavior toward his brother, his mother ignored it, and continued to allow the boy to babysit his siblings, until the fatal incident occurred.

Was this child old enough to know right from wrong? Not if he’d never been shown the difference. How can a boy who has known only violence understand that violence is wrong?

A well-known consequence of early neglect is an inability in children to exercise impulse control and emotional regulation as a result of stunted brain development. It’s often seen in adopted children who spent time in orphanages, even as little as six months. Again, these deficits can be the result of as little as six months of neglect. Cristian Fernandez’s entire life is one of neglect, abuse and pain. Can you imagine what that did to his brain?

It’s hard to understand State Attorney Angela Corey’s logic here. She’s got the boy dead to rights; he killed his brother, no question. But does he deserve to die in prison for that? The Supreme Court says no, and as human beings, we should agree. I’m not sure this child can be rehabilitated, but certainly he deserves, at last, to be in a place where his basic needs are met. And — because he’s a child — prison is not that place.

Joshua Phillips and Cristian Fernandez share few commonalities other than the unconscionable burden of having committed murder. If Corey gets her way, they’ll also share the same address for the rest of their lives. (By contrast, an adult, while driving drunk, who kills someone can be sentenced to only 15 years.)

Joshua Phillips is now a man. Perhaps he understands the gravity of the crime he committed, and the deep, untreatable wound he inflicted on Maddie Clifton’s family. It’s not something he was capable of comprehending at the time of the murder.

And Cristian Fernandez? He’s nothing close to a man. He’s a scared, ruined little boy. He’s not a monster, at least not yet. Let’s keep it that way, Ms. Corey. ο

Tricia Book

Booker is a writer and fitness instructor living in Ponte Vedra Beach. She blogs at mylefthook.com.