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October 15, 2009

Thoughtful reflections on juve LWOP from Minnesota

As noted in this post, last week the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected constitutional arguments against an LWOP sentence for 17-year-old murderer.  That ruling has prompted this thoughtful commentary, headlined "The kids are not alright: Minnesota minors who kill can go to jail for life with no chance of getting out." Here are snippets:

Last Thursday, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld Martin’s sentence, saying it was not a violation of the federal or state constitution. Minnesota’s decision comes at a critical time for judicial consideration of juvenile sentences. On Nov. 9, the United States Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on whether sentencing juveniles to life without parole for non-homicidal crimes is unconstitutional. To oversimplify things, the decision faced by the courts is whether life sentences meted out to offending minors violates the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bans “cruel and unusual punishments.” Minnesota’s state constitution, which was also considered in Martin’s case, however, bans “cruel or unusual punishment.”

Before jumping to any conclusions, consider how important some of the issues involved are. These kids have been convicted of committing horrible crimes. You don’t get life without parole for vandalizing the neighbor’s garage....

I was talking about these cases with my friend and classmate Rob Crist, who I think summed things up perfectly with a question: “What do you do with a kid like that?” For some states, the solution is to lock the kids up for the rest of their lives. “The juvenile system has been utterly incapable of doing anything with Mr. Sullivan, even though Sullivan had been given opportunity after opportunity to upright himself and take advantage of the second and third chances he’s been given,” the prosecution’s brief states, quoting the trial judge.

Yet, despite the horror of the acts themselves, many argue that the kids deserve a second chance on account of their age. Sullivan’s defense team’s brief before the Supreme Court lists all the sociopsychological reasons against harsh sentences for children....

Any time a juvenile commits a violent crime, it’s already a tragedy. I can’t help but think that a child like Joseph Sullivan doesn’t do what he did unless a long line of adults — people like his teachers, parents or others in his surrounding community — had failed to teach him responsibility all along.

Somehow, the world has gotten to the point where kids are killers and rapists long before they can graduate from high school. As horrible as this is, I’m skeptical that the best way to deal with our youngest criminal offenders is to lock them up and throw away the key.

Some recent posts on juve LWOP and the Graham and Sullivan cases:

October 15, 2009 at 07:59 AM | Permalink

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Comments

We use LWOP in Michigan, and have a number of juveniles in prison on such sentences. I've long thought that there ought to be a provision in the parole statutes providing that, notwithstanding any other provision of law, all inmates must be reviewed for parole upon attaining 60 years of age, and annually thereafter, even if they haven't yet served therir minimum sentence. Crime, especially violent crime, is a young man's activity. Eventually, it ought to be possible to release these people. I'm not saying everybody should get out of prison at 60, but it is appropriate to review the older inmates for parole on a regular basis, and release those who can be safely released, to make more room for the younger ones entering the prison system.

Posted by: Greg Jones | Oct 15, 2009 9:57:04 AM

Sullivan doesn’t do what he did unless a long line of adults — people like his teachers, parents or others in his surrounding community — had failed to teach him responsibility all along

It's interesting to note, however, that the various amicus briefs filed in these cases, do not argue environmental reasons, but rely about exclusively on biological theories as to why juveniles should be treated differently.

Posted by: Steve | Oct 15, 2009 10:01:51 AM

that should read "almost"

Posted by: Steve | Oct 15, 2009 10:02:27 AM

"Crime, especially violent crime, is a young man's activity."

Exactly, only I would drop it to age 40. I am not a person who believes, except in the crudest sense, that people are prisoners to biology. But I also think that it's simply unscientific to claim that the aging process does not change the way we think, act, feel. I think the biggest mistake we make is that we think a second chance means to or three months or years later. I'd actually support laws that kept teens in jail longer (i.e., past the age of 18) for even typical crimes but that let them out earlier. While I understand the need for 18 years being a magical number in some cases, when it comes to crime and in specific rehabilitation of teens I'd like to see this magic number go out the door. If neuroscience is correct and the brain is not fully developed until age 24 then tossing a kid back into the community at age 16 or 18 is not giving him or her a second chance, it's sending them right back into the firestorm.

Posted by: Daniel | Oct 15, 2009 11:07:21 AM

It is simply not possible to predict with an acceptable level of certainty what a persons risk will be in three years, let alone thirty. That being the case, sentencing systems that attempt to do so are substantively unfair and should be found unconstitutional. There is an alternative. Make risk control decisions fixed time intervals, say yearly. That's what insurance companies do.

Posted by: Tom McGee | Oct 15, 2009 1:52:35 PM

I've long thought that there ought to be a provision in the parole statutes providing that, notwithstanding any other provision of law, all inmates must be reviewed for parole upon attaining 60 years of age, and annually thereafter, even if they haven't yet served therir minimum sentence.

One problem with this is: where do they go? After 40-50 years, during which prison is the only environment they've known, what do they do? How do they find food, shelter, health care? After you've taken away half-a-century of someone's life, how do you put them back in the community, where there's probably no one still living who knows them?

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Oct 15, 2009 2:19:29 PM

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