September 29, 2008
"Nearly 500 teens serving life terms in Pa. prisons"
The title of this post is the title of this notable article from this morning's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Here are some excerpts:
Pennsylvania leads the nation in teen lifers -- prisoners serving life without parole for crimes they committed as minors -- and last week legislators met to examine the issue for the first time.
In a courtroom in Pittsburgh, 18-year-old twins Devon and Jovon Knox faced exactly that fate -- life without parole -- for killing 18-year-old Jehru Donaldson in a botched car-jacking in July 2007, when they were 17. They join the 444 teen lifers currently held in Pennsylvania prisons, which is about a fifth of the nation's total and 110 more than runner-up Louisiana, according to a May 2008 report by Human Rights Watch.
Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and called the hearing, said he was startled to learn that Pennsylvania held the No. 1 spot and that the United States is the only country in the world that regularly imprisons youths for life. "That got my attention," he said. "I felt a responsibility to look at [the issue] ... which is why we held the hearing."
Some states have considered laws that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles or that would eliminate the penalty altogether. Five states and Washington, D.C., prohibit the practice altogether. Last year in Pennsylvania, nine people were sentenced to life for crimes they committed as minors. Today, 10 people in Allegheny County await trial for crimes they committed as minors and could wind up in prison for life. (First- and second-degree murder are the only crimes that result in a minor being sentenced to life in prison.)
The issue has been polarizing, with human rights activists arguing that sentencing a juvenile to life in prison is excessively harsh and some victims advocates arguing that those who commit homicide should spend the rest of their lives in prison, regardless of their age. Still, it's the number -- 444 -- that troubles some. "It could be a commentary on Pennsylvania law ... it could also be a commentary on society," said Judge Kim Berkeley Clark, who heads the county's Family Division and has adjudicated some juvenile homicide cases. "It makes me very sad."
Some related posts on juve life sentences:
September 29, 2008 at 09:35 AM | Permalink
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While looking at the extremes, one can see the problems with the rest of the prison system. Nearly 500 teens in prison for decades each is a terrible reality, because these people will never develop into fully fledged members of society. However, what about the 30 and 40-year-olds facing the same fate, for whom there is no hope?
Posted by: JT | Sep 29, 2008 11:25:02 AM
But let's say we took all of those 444 guys and let them out in say 30 years. How many would rape? How many would murder? Then there's the little inconvenience of the fact that they took a life.
Yeah, it's sad, but life is full of hard choices and difficult decisions.
And this question is for all non-moonbats . . . . how livid would you be if your son, daughter, husband, wife, sister or brother were murdered by some juvie killer to whom the system showed mercy?
Posted by: pa | Sep 29, 2008 12:34:00 PM
Well, I am curious to know what they mean by teen. I have always rejected the bright-line notion that 18 marks a magical turning point in a person's life. To me, at 17 I have no trouble with them being charged as adults. None. OTOH, if I were to find out that most of these people were 13 or 14 that would make a big difference to me.
Again, I reject bright-line rules for these cases so I am not sure whether there is a real problem here or not.
Posted by: Daniel | Sep 29, 2008 12:51:34 PM
pa, I'd be livid if _anyone_ murdered my loved ones. But wanting to base an entire criminal justice system upon how I feeeeeeel is far more "moon-batty" than advocating intelligent juvenile policies.
Posted by: Arika | Sep 29, 2008 12:55:31 PM
Arika, not sure that's right--if you take it as a given that some of the 444 are going to reoffend violently (a fair assumption), is their collective freedom worth someone's life? When someone murders, it's certainly fair to point out that they very well could murder again. It's happened so so many times. That part of the calculus has to be taken into consideration.
Posted by: pa | Sep 29, 2008 1:26:41 PM
pa, it is indeed fair to point out the possibility of recidivism, but that has nothing to do with whether I'd be more or less livid over the murder of a loved one--which was your question. If policy is to be based upon what surviving family members feel, what would you conclude be done if I wish my brother's (theoretical) murderer--whom I've forgiven--to be given the chance to demonstrate his rehabilitation outside prison? Or would then my feelings--of great import when I was livid--no longer of concern?
I don't wish to be snide, but to merely point out the use of emotional appeals. When used to bolster arguments for policy, it leads to some victims being more important, more "right," than others.
To the question of recidivism: I agree it's a given someone will re-offend. Same goes for any level of offender, of any age.
It's also a given children are more likely to die in a car accident than from any other cause. (So says the CDC.) Should we proclaim "zero tolerance," and prevent all children from riding in cars? Or should we continue with our current policies of permitting children to ride in cars while we do all we can to mitigate the danger? Zero tolerance would prevent 100% of child auto deaths. Current policy, on the other hand, accepts 1300 deaths of children under the age of 14 as a valid trade-off for (fairly) convenient transportation.
Each one of Penn's 444 would have to kill three children--every year, year after year--to reach the apparently acceptable limit set by auto drivers.
Posted by: Arika | Sep 29, 2008 5:15:21 PM
I don't think it's an emotional appeal at all. If you let 444 murderers go, you will have additional murders. And I am not willing to trade the deaths of the innocent for freedom for them. Moreoever, these people deliberately took a life--not sure they should be free, ever.
And comparing automobile accidents to murders does not advance the discussion.
Posted by: pa | Sep 29, 2008 7:25:13 PM
A few years ago I briefly represented a kid who, purportedly was the son of a woman who gave birth at 13, committed a homicide at 14 and is now serving life in Pennsylvania. I'm not sure of the moral culpability of 16 and 17 year olds, but life for a crime committed at 14, no matter how brazen, cruel or inhumane seems itself morally wrong.
Posted by: karl | Sep 29, 2008 9:24:45 PM
Perhaps it is, karl. But is it not more morally wrong to risk innocent lives? That's what happens. You cannot escape that reality. I don't know what the answer is--but I don't think that these killers should have an absolute right to go free at some point.
Posted by: federalist | Sep 29, 2008 10:04:23 PM
I'm not sure that a 14 year old has the moral culpability to remove the possibility of hope and redemption for his actions.
Posted by: karl | Sep 29, 2008 10:55:54 PM
federalist wrote: "Perhaps it is, karl. But is it not more morally wrong to risk innocent lives?"
Oh please. Your whole political philosophy is premised on risking "innocent" (whatever that means) lives. Your opposition to a healthy and secure society consigns hundreds of thousands of "innocent" people to die.
(And what of your support for the war on Iraq and the "innocent" lives lost there? I'm sick of this hypocritical bullshit, and it will not be tolerated any longer. You have neither morals nor principles, and your words have no authentic meaning. They are just propaganda. When you say "innocent," it is just a word to secure political support behind the favored policy you are currently advocating and nothing more. Enough is enough. Conservative fascism is dead.)
Posted by: DK | Sep 29, 2008 11:42:38 PM
It is not dead, DK, but merely snoring rather obnoxiously. The California Voter Information Guide for the upcoming general election contains mini-victum impact statement for Propositions 6 and 9 and is supported the Crime Victims United, the prison guard spin-off. How can anyone not vote for them without feeling guilty?
The CCPOA has been active in funding and promoting the victims' rights movement in California. In 1991 the CCPOA assisted the movement in creating the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, and in 1992 the Crime Victims United of California, a political action committee which received over 95% of its startup costs from the CCPOA. In addition, the CCPOA has supported campaigns pushing longer prison terms and more "punitive" sentences for criminals. The CCPOA made large contributions to the 1994 campaign for Proposition 184,* the "three strikes" initiative which put repeat offenders behind bars, and is credited with helping the proposition to pass with over 70 percent of the vote.
Posted by: | Sep 30, 2008 12:12:10 AM
Karl, please don't twist my words. I merely said that a 14 year old murderer doesnt have an absolute right to be released at some point in time. That is not a conclusion that he cannot be redeemed or that he shouldn't have some chance at release.
Posted by: federalist | Sep 30, 2008 2:21:25 AM
"I don't think it's an emotional appeal at all."
I believe you. However, there is indeed a distinct difference between discussing recidivism and asking who would be "livid" over recidivism.
Posted by: Arika | Sep 30, 2008 8:15:10 AM
Perhaps what you don't know is that in Pennsylvania there is no parole for anyone serving a life sentence. All life sentences are without parole. Additionally there is no minimum age to try a kid as an adult, although the younger you go the more difficult it is to do. What I think you are trying to say is that a 14 year old deserves at least a chance at parole somewhere down the line, however, for those convicted of 1st & 2nd degree murders in the Commonwealth that just isn't possible.
With that said, and I think what this comment thread missed is the work being done by Sen. Greenleaf in this area is remarkable. On the state level he has to be one of the leading advocates for smart & informed sentencing.
Posted by: karl | Sep 30, 2008 8:39:56 AM
I do know that, karl. I can read. Your original post stated categorically that 14 year olds shouldnt get LWOP, which means that you support an absolute right for a 14 year old killer to walk out of prison some day. I reject that--that's what my post was addressing.
Arika, it's not emotional to point out just how devastating murder is.
Posted by: federalist | Sep 30, 2008 9:37:11 AM
In this important public policy debate about what to do with murderers under age 18 whose crimes and cases rise to the level of adult trials for exceptionally heinous and aggravated murders, there is one key component that has been left out. While there has been incredibly significant resources devoted to advocating for the "juvenile lifers" (actually most were 17 at the time of the crime and were all found by courts to be adults) and legislation filed to retroactively require victims families to attend parole hearings for the rest of their lives, the victims families of these 2400 or so murderers nationally shockingly have not been found, informed, or invited to the table in this discussion.
A few of us are aware of it and have banded together to form the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers NOVJL and we are at www.jlwopvictims.org.
We only ask for our rights to notification of and participation in the processes around the sentencing in our cases.
Yet the advocates for the younger murderers have not devoted one dime of their vast resources to informing, involving or supporting the victims families.
Please help us find other victims families and help us ask all those engaging in this public policy sentencing discussion to bring victims families to the table if they so choose in this process.
Go to www.jlwopvictims.org and help us.
Posted by: Jennifer | Oct 10, 2008 2:08:49 AM
Now let us talk of a remedy for the geriatric population in the overcrowded prisons. The Pa. Crime Statutes describes first and second degree murder as two different crimes. However, the punishment is LWOP which is mandatory. This needs to be addressed first. Those convicted of second degree murder may recieve a parole review based on a five point state mandated merit system, with the victims advocates involved in the process. The corrections budget is soaring and it is not going down anytime soon. We need solutions to a very costly problem.
Posted by: dollar | Oct 31, 2008 2:09:37 PM
I am a defense attorney (Doug asks us to identify ourselves by role). I think it might be useful to clarify that abandoning LWOP for juvenile offenders does not mean providing such offenders with "an absolute right to be released at some point in time." The idea is simply to allow for the *possibility* of parole---i.e., the right to argue, at some point in time, that parole is appropriate.
LWOP means life without the possibility of parole. In most states, on the other hand, "straight life" means that one is eligible to be considered for parole after a certain number of years, *not* that one is guaranteed to ever receive parole. Indeed, in many states, advocates complain that it is next to impossible to get a parole board to grant parole in a murder case, even where the prisoner has the right to be considered for parole every so many years. Many of these "straight life" prisoners will die in prison, or be paroled only at the extreme end of their lives when they are infirm and a burden to the system.
In my understanding, then, ending LWOP sentencing for juvenile offenders would not mean juvenile murderers were eventually guaranteed release. Rather, it would mean that such an offender would be guaranteed at least an opportunity to argue that he or she (probably he) has become such a different person at 45, or 50, than he was at 15 that he should be given the benefit of parole. As noted, such arguments are uphill battles in murder cases, although it is possible that it would be a little easier to make the argument in a juvenile case, where the crime was ostensibly committed before the person's personality and judgment fully developed. This argument might have particular traction in the numerous cases where the juvenile was in the company of older offenders and was not a triggerman---i.e., cases prosecuted on an accomplice/aiding and abetting/felony murder theory. At any rate, the parole board would retain its typical, wide discretion. The person's record in prison would be highly relevant, and anyone who had exhibited a further tendency to violence or depravity in prison would be highly unlikely to win parole. But someone with an exemplary record and a relatively less heinous crime might have a decent chance (presumably better than an adult offender in the same circumstances).
As to risk of recidivism, of course, anyone might reoffend. (The classic reductio ad absurdum being that we can't give the death penalty for parking tickets.) But this risk of recidivism is true of all violent offenders, most of whom are eventually released. The point of abolishing LWOP for juveniles is simply that is neither fair nor smart policy to make a *categorical* judgment that a young offender is so culpable and so likely to be dangerous in the future that he must be segregated from society until death. Abolishing LWOP for juveniles would not prevent states from making such a judgment in any individual case.
Posted by: Observer | Nov 24, 2008 8:02:06 PM
My sister was convicted in 1992 in Pennsylvania for 2nd degree murder. She had never been in any trouble in her life. She was a senior in high school,a strait a student,but because she was there,the law then says you must have been guilty. How many of you have found yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time or made a bad choice of a friend? At 17 I made alot of stupid decisions. "Only by the grace of god there go I." Be careful to pass judgement without all the facts.For God only knows when you may want someone to show you some mercy. My sister is a beautiful person who has accomplished more than most ever do as a free sitizen. It would be an answer to prayer to see her someday be set free but,until then God will keep her under his protection,and will use her for his will. She has been in prison for nearly 18 years. To this day she worries more about our mom and the well being of others than of herself. thank you for your time Kathryn
Posted by: kathryn | Jan 6, 2009 3:59:48 PM