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October 17, 2007

NYTimes coverage of very young lifers

20071017_teenage_190_1Writing in the New York Times, Adam Liptak has this potent new article discussing offenders serving life terms for crimes committed as very young teenagers.  Here are excerpts from a piece that is part of a new series "that will examine commonplace aspects of the American justice system that are actually unique in the world":

In December, the United Nations took up a resolution calling for the abolition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children and young teenagers. The vote was 185 to 1, with the United States the lone dissenter.

Indeed, the United States stands alone in the world in convicting young adolescents as adults and sentencing them to live out their lives in prison. According to a new report, there are 73 Americans serving such sentences for crimes they committed at 13 or 14....

The group that plans to release the report on Oct. 17, the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Ala., is one of several human rights organizations that say states should be required to review sentences of juvenile offenders as the decades go by, looking for cases where parole might be warranted.

But prosecutors and victims’ rights groups say there are crimes so terrible and people so dangerous that only life sentences without the possibility of release are a fit moral and practical response.

According to a 2005 report from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, 59 percent of the more than 2,200 prisoners serving life without parole for crimes they committed at 17 or younger had never been convicted of a previous crime.  And 26 percent were in for felony murder, meaning they participated in a crime that led to a murder but did not themselves kill anyone.

The new report focuses on the youngest offenders, locating 73 juvenile lifers in 19 states who were 13 and 14 when they committed their crimes.  Pennsylvania has the most, with 19, and Florida is next, with 15. In those states and Illinois, Nebraska, North Carolina and Washington, 13-year-olds have been sentenced to die in prison.  In most of the cases, the sentences were mandatory, an automatic consequence of a murder conviction after being tried as an adult.

October 17, 2007 at 01:24 AM | Permalink


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Anyone reading this, who believes the authors of the US Constitution would ever have imagined in their worst nightmares that their work and ideals would ever have been so distorted and abused to permit this in a society they tried so hard to civilize and protect, need an immediate course of psychiatry.

Posted by: peter | Oct 17, 2007 3:42:51 AM

I am not an attorney, but can some one tell me how is this constitutional?

Posted by: EJ | Oct 17, 2007 9:44:20 AM

"And 26 percent were in for felony murder, meaning they participated in a crime that led to a murder but did not themselves kill anyone."

The conclusion does not follow from the premise. Although it is possible for an accomplice to be convicted of murder under the felony-murder rule, a great many actual killers are convicted under that rule. I don't know if there are any firm data, but I would expect that most felony murder convictions are of the triggerman.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Oct 17, 2007 10:56:40 AM

"I would expect that most felony murder convictions are of the triggerman."

Because you always "expect" the worst of those charged with crime, no doubt. My actual experience differs, so I don't expect any such thing.

Kids doubtless get convicted of felony murder a lot because they rob in groups, and everybody gets stuck with murder for the actions of the biggest idiot in the lot. Typical over-prosecution of course, but this whole area is full of it.

Posted by: Dcounsel | Oct 17, 2007 12:35:04 PM

There is a great frontline piece on this very issue, entitled "When kids get life." It is available online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/whenkidsgetlife/view/

Posted by: Joro | Oct 17, 2007 1:21:23 PM

But Kent Scheidegger is right in that the author has no idea what felony murder is. I suppose this should have been expected in light of Roper v. Simmons, but it's kind of ridiculous to suggest that there are NO circumstances under which it would be appropriate for a 14-year-old murderer to spend the rest of his or her life in prison.

Posted by: Steve | Oct 17, 2007 1:59:27 PM

But Liptak isn't saying that there are NO circumstances in which it would be appropriate for a 14-year-old to spend the rest of his or her life in prison.

The fact that there are SOME circumstances justifying it, does not mean that all of them are justified.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Oct 17, 2007 3:10:20 PM

I realize Liptak wasn't saying that there were no circumstances justifying life imprisonment without parole for young murderers (this was a news article, not an opinion piece, after all). However, it's my understanding that some of the groups cited in the piece are making that claim. I also agree that just because some circumstances may justify this punishment doesn't mean that whenever it's imposed, it's justified. Nonetheless, the Court eliminated all possibility of the death penalty for juvenile murderers, even though the result is that some will avoid death despite being as deserving as others, simply because they were a few months younger when they committed their crimes. I think the result in Roper only emboldened those who want a categorical ban on life imprisonment for juvenile killers.

Posted by: Steve | Oct 17, 2007 4:10:56 PM

The key here is mandatory sentencing, which is completely bogus. It is simply a political tool of legislatures to make it look like they are doing something proactive to stop crime. It defeats the purpose of our three-tiered system of government and allows legislators to do the jobs of judges (without even seeing each individual case). This is the opposite of "legislating from the bench", which is so widely hated. In short, judges are elected and appointed because of their ability to use good judgment and discretion, and we should leave that up to them. I'm sure there are teens and young teens out there that would always be a huge danger to society, but let's let the judge (or jury) make that decision.

Posted by: Alex | Sep 10, 2009 12:52:43 AM

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