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February 6, 2008

New York Times editorial assails juvenile LWOP

Highlighting one of many sentencing issues I wish would get more attention in this election season, the New York Times today has this new editorial headlined, "A Shameful Record."  Here are excerpts:

The United States leads the world in a shameful category: the number of people it has locked up for life without parole for crimes committed by juveniles. Juvenile crime should not be taken lightly, but young people should not be completely written off.

According to Human Rights Watch, 2,380 people in this country are serving life sentences for crimes they committed before they turned 18. That makes the United States an extreme global outlier. Sentencing juveniles to life without parole is at odds with international law; the vast majority of the world’s countries ban the practice....

In California, the Legislature recently failed to act on a bill that would have allowed the more than 225 inmates serving life sentences there for crimes committed as minors the right to appear before a parole board after serving 25 years in prison.  The bill deserves to be reintroduced, and to pass. California is hardly the only state that needs to rethink its approach.  As many as 38 states sentence minors to life without the chance of parole, including Pennsylvania, the worst offender, where hundreds of inmates — estimates range from 360 to 433 — have no hope of ever being released because of crimes they committed between the ages of 13 and 18.

There are now more than 2 million people behind bars in the United States. Locking up juveniles for life without parole is unfair and a poor use of criminal justice resources. California, and the other states, should rethink this misguided policy.

Some recent related posts on juve life sentences:

February 6, 2008 at 09:35 AM | Permalink


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Should Lee Malvo ever be let out?

Posted by: William Jockusch | Feb 6, 2008 2:27:44 PM

I'm really happy to see the NYT talking about this. I'm hoping an ongoing heightened awareness of this practice might finally spark is a fresh discussion about alternatives. Those who oppose eliminating LWOP for juvenile violent offenders always fall back on an argument that implies that if juvenile murderers don't spend life locked up with adult violent offenders the alternative is a slap on the hand, or release. Advocates for juvenile justice reform seem to be forced to rely on illustrating specific cases where a conviction, based on the circumstances of the crime appears to be unduly harsh. In my opinion (and I know many others do not share it) the specific crime committed by a juvenile is irrelevant. I'm in no way saying the crime doesn't matter. It does and for every offender I research, I learn about the victims and their families and I grieve for them and understand that many feel that the teenagers guilty of causing the death of their loved ones should stay behind bars until they die. It's a valid emotion, but it cannot be the only factor when considering how our society addresses this issue. Many of them are horrific and it's difficult to hear about them or imagine how a child could commit such atrocities. It's the age of the offender that's the issue. Juveniles convicted of murder have to be punished, but it's my belief that due to their age, no matter what they've done, redemption should always be a possibility, even if it's behind bars. Many of them, if they receive education and treatment in addition to the punishment (which is all they get in adult prison) are capable of remorse, maturity, change and rehabilitation. They're out there. Prior to juveniles serving LWOP, many were punished and eventually released and they did not reoffend. I wouldn't want any juvenile released without taking responsibility and undergoing the process of learning how to live in our world. Absent that and absent a truly iron will to change, they learn to shut off their emotions and do what they need to do in order to survive in the vicious, violent environment that is a maximum security prison. Some don't survive and they kill themselves or become the permanent victims of sexual predators and are shunned by the general population. Some continue on the violent path they started on. Juvenile LWOP is not the answer. We need real dialogue and real solutions.

Posted by: Lisa Kenney | Feb 6, 2008 2:54:13 PM

Juvenile LWOP has to be the answer for some crimes. Malvo, for example, should NEVER EVER set foot out of a prison.

But putting that point to one side, the issue is risk to the community. You say "I wouldn't want any juvenile released without taking responsibility and undergoing the process of learning how to live in our world." Well, how is that standard, as a practical matter, going to be enforced? You decry the fate of the 2,380 juvies facing LWOP, but what of the fate of the thousands upon thousands of people who have been murdered by those who have murdered, been incarcerated, and then released to murder again? It seems to me that society has the right to err on the side of throwing away the key on a juvenile killer, even if it means that some of them would be model citizens upon release. There are tradeoffs here, and I think that you should be analyzing the risk to society that would be caused by your enlightened ideas. Ending LWOP for those 2,380 would extract a price in blood.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 6, 2008 8:11:13 PM

The Dangerous offender classification used in Canada is a indeterminate sentence that mandates review after seven years and subsequent biannual reviews. If the circumstances are favorable the person can be paroled. In my opinion this a a better approach than LWOP in (particular when the offender is young and had no prior criminal record).

Posted by: John Neff | Feb 6, 2008 11:34:20 PM

Federalist, I'm not sure I can follow your argument. LWOP is not necessary to ensure an offender who continues to pose a risk to society is never released. Members of the Manson family have been eligible for parole for years and every year it's denied. There are life sentences with the possibility of parole that merely open up the possibility that after having served a mandatory minimum sentence (in my state, it's currently 40 years for murder) the offender may apply for, but won't necessarily be granted parole. I am absolutely in favor of juveniles serving long sentences for serious crimes. What I am opposed to is cutting off the possibility of parole and incarcerating teenagers in adult maximum security prisons. You said, "You decry the fate of the 2,380 juvies facing LWOP, but what of the fate of the thousands upon thousands of people who have been murdered by those who have murdered, been incarcerated, and then released to murder again?" Of course I feel sadness and compassion for the victims. I can't respond to that because I don't know what your source of information is. I have done some preliminary research and what I've found is that prior to so many states adopting LWOP sentencing for juveniles, the opposite was true. Adult violent criminals tend to re-offend at a much higher rate than juvenile first time offenders convicted of murder. I don't think you can produce any evidence to support your argument that every juvenile who has been convicted of murder (keeping in mind that although many of the convicted juvenile murderers have indeed been involved in premeditated murder, many others were teenagers who were present when someone died during the commission of a crime, but legitimately did not participate in the crime, many of them are mentally ill, and a great many of them were horribly abused and therefore were children that our society failed) poses a risk to society. Some of these offenders may always pose a risk to society and should never leave prison, but many others are very capable of maturing and being rehabilitated. To be honest, you're the first person that I've heard use the risk to society that the offenders pose as the primary argument for "throwing away the key". Typically, the biggest argument that comes up is that it is in deference to the victims and their families that the offenders are kept locked up. Again, I'd ask why is allowing for the mere possibility of parole so dangerous when it doesn't guarantee anything? Why do juveniles have to be housed with adult criminals? Why can we not admit that many of these teenagers have made terrible mistakes and with the proper punishment in an environment where focusing on rehabilitation, rather than survival should be given the opportunity to prove themselves worthy of a second chance? In addition to the points we're discussing, there's also a far greater monetary cost to incarcerating this large number of teenagers until their natural deaths and the cost only increases as they age. Can you concede to any of these points or provide any data to support your statistics?

Posted by: Lisa Kenney | Feb 7, 2008 12:28:40 AM

Off the top of my head I can think of two juvenile killers who did some pretty bad things once released--I am sure that with some research I could find lots more:

Jose Padilla and a death row inmate in Oklahoma who recently (and unfortunately) got off death row for raping and killing a boy. Lionel Tate committed a crime after being let out.

The point, Lisa, is that I don't really need statistics. Parole eligibility means people get out. So let's take by way of a hypo. Say the 2,380 juvenile killers have a chance at parole, and 100 get out. How many people will the 100 harm after getting parole. Is one rape victim worth letting 100 kids out? 2 murders? 10 armed robberies? The lenience shown to Tate, thankfully, didn't get anyone killed. It easily could have.

And please spare us the "he was only present at the crime" nonsense.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 7, 2008 10:02:43 AM

A practice note Federalist - when someone raises a counterargument refuting your original argument, its considered bad form to restate your argument more forceably. You also seem to be conflating two separate issues 1) whether life without parole for juveniles is necessary for public safety and 2) whether juvenile LWOP is needed due to the enormity of some crimes (which is what you are really doing by basing your argument based on the DC sniper case).

Let's use the DC sniper case as an example. Question 1 should be answered in the negative. There is little evidence that I am aware of that suggests that Malvo would be dangerous to society absent Muhammad's influence. Thus, it is possible that given his young age and having committed the crimes under the influence of an older individual that Malvo might be reformed to the point where his release could be sought.

Question 2 is more difficult in that case. As someone who lived in Virginia at the time of the Beltway Snipers, I know for a fact that the Beltway Snipers caused panic way beyond the DC area - most of the state of Virginia and Maryland were put into fear - especially when it appeared that the snipers were moving south along I-95. Places as far away as the Shenandoah Valley, Richmond, and even down into Tidewater were gripped with fear of the snipers. In fact, Malvo and Muhammad caused the absolutely scariest experience of my life - I was headed down I-95 when they shot the man in Ashland (almost down to Richmond, hence the cause of state-wide panic). I-95 and other roads in the area were then closed - so I was sitting in my car stuck for over 2 hours, with the only movement being a large number of police cars running down the shoulder with lights and sirens blaring. It was absolutely the most frightening experience because I had the though that if the snipers were sitting in the car next to me and they came up to the police roadblock, I could be caught in the crossfire. Thus, their crimes caused massive effects for thousands of people, including me. Malvo's crime, thus provides a strong argument for maximum punishment under question 2. Thus, no one will argue that a life sentence is unreasonable. However, with 1 saying there is a possibility of rehabilitation, it probably argues that there should be the possibility of parole. Perhaps Malvo will never be rehabilitated to the point of safe release, but if that is the case, Virginia will hold him forever. I don't read Lisa's argument as saying it is inappropriate to sentence a juvenile to life with the possibility of parole. Malvo's was an exceptional case - general rules should not be made based on exceptional cases, especially when life with the possibility of parole seems to be more suited to making sure that the punishment truly fits the crime. I don't think that many will argue with you federalist that Malvo doesn't deserve the maximum punishment allowable by law - but that doesn't answer the question for what should the maximum punishment for juvenile crimes be - there are some good policy arguments in favor of making it life with the possibility of parole.

Posted by: Zack | Feb 7, 2008 3:03:40 PM

I guess "putting that to one side" didn't clue you in. Oh well.

In any event, my point is that when you have parole, it gets used, and calling release a "mere possibility" doesn't really address my concerns about the difficulty of giving a right to meaningful parole (I don't think Lisa's saying that parole should be limited to when these guys are very old men--hence the word, "meaningful"), but only allowing parole in very very narrow circumstances. Given the events of the past 30 years and our wonderful experiences with parole shortened sentences for violent crime, who in their right mind would trust that, this time, giving juvenile killers parole would not be a hazard to public safety? To be blunt, I accept that people can be rehabilitated, but I am willing to consign each and every juvie serving LWOP to die in prison because I believe that the system cannot be trusted to do a good job in separating those who can be released safely with those who cannot. To me, this is an allocation of risk issue.

Now, I think that there should be the possibility of clemency for these 2,380, but that's really about it, and I don't really care a lot that there is no possibility for clemency in some instances. This may sound harsh and unenlightened, but releasing a significant portion of the 2,380 juvenile killers doesn't seem like a good idea to me. Why, because people will wind up dead.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 7, 2008 3:49:06 PM

"I accept that people can be rehabilitated, but I am willing to consign each and every juvie serving LWOP to die in prison because I believe that the system cannot be trusted to do a good job in separating those who can be released safely with those who cannot."

That pretty much shuts down the discussion.

Posted by: Lisa Kenney | Feb 7, 2008 6:12:50 PM

Perhaps, but you don't even acknowledge the danger that giving these 2,380 parole rights can cause. I am at least willing to state clearly my views in stark terms. You subscribe to an idea that a bureaucratic parole system will really make sure that some juvenile murderer will be a good risk for release, when all experience points to the contrary. And you are unwilling to admit that you are shifting risk from killers to innocent members of society. In addition, your comments about "wrong place at wrong time" and "mistakes" are woefully naive. Yeah, I feel sorry for these guys too--it must really suck to be in prison at age 25, knowing that you really screwed up and now all you have to do is think about the screw-up. But you know what, just because you feel sorry for them doesn't mean that they should be free, nor does it mean that giving them parole rights would make the world a better place, nor does it mean that the people creating the condition in which they find themselves are wrong. I feel sorry for prostitutes, but I don't think the cops are wrong for arresting them.

Sometimes a kid does something that ruins his life. It's that simple.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 7, 2008 6:33:01 PM

The California bill was a poorly written joke. I explained this to the Senate and sent my writeup to the Assembly where it died in committee. It would have given an opportunity at parole to every single juvenile killer. The bill had various ways to qualify for a reduced sentence and one of them was to show remorse. Sounds great until you read what that meant. Show remorse meant take a course while in custody. If you applied the criteria, (and assumed they were under 18 when they committed the crime), Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Daumer, Richard Ramirez would all qualify.

The number of people sentenced to LWOP as juveniles and their stories are inaccurate and often fictionalized in the Human Rights Watch publication and other publications on this issue.

There are ways to fight injustice and unjust sentences without protecting the serial killers, sadists, child rapist/murderers and others who will never reform and will kill and maim again.

This would include expanded habeas time frames, increased funding, sentencing hearing requirements e.g. specific factual findings by a judge so that LWOP is not an automatic sentence.

Posted by: Daniel Horowitz | Oct 8, 2009 3:15:53 AM

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