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June 11, 2014

Fascinating account of post-Miller realities for juve killers with new chance for eventual freedom

At Slate, Beth Schwartzapfel has this terrific new essay about what might be called "life after Miller" for juvenile murderers who now have a possible chance for release from a life prison sentence as a result of the Supreme Court's modern Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. The piece merits a full read, and it carries the headline, "'Where Do You Think That Rage Came From?' To get parole, people sentenced to life as juveniles must reckon with their pasts." Here is how the piece gets started:

Last week, the Massachusetts Parole Board announced that Frederick Christian might go home.  He would be one of the first people to be released based on the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling, in Miller v. Alabama, finding mandatory life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional.

Christian was 17 when he was involved in a drug robbery that ended with the shooting deaths of two men.  Now he is 37.  In prison, he got his GED, enrolled in violence prevention programs, and converted to Islam.  The five-times-a-day prayers, he said, “taught me discipline.”  He has maintained a steady job cleaning the prison, gone regularly to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and helped to grow vegetables for the homeless.

Across the country, some 2,500 people are serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles.  Some have already served 30 years or more.  Yet it’s likely few of them will get out.  Before he can be paroled, Christian still has to complete a behavior modification program and live for a year in a minimum security prison. And his hearing is one of only a handful like it around the country since Miller.  The Supreme Court said that the young people’s capacity to mature and change entitle them to a second chance.  But lower courts, legislatures, and parole boards have more incentive to maintain the status quo than to show mercy — to follow the letter of Miller but not its spirit.

That’s because letting more prisoners like Christian go free requires a return to an idea that the country largely abandoned a generation ago: that criminals can be rehabilitated, and there is a limit to just retribution.  As costs rise for the growing prison population, legislators from every corner of the political map are now calling for a softening of sentencing laws.  But legislation about the future is one thing.  Giving a second chance to people who have already been sentenced for doing terrible things is another.

June 11, 2014 at 11:09 PM | Permalink

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