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February 14, 2008

Another potent report calling for juve sentencing reforms

Jlwop_reportcover As detailed in this press report, an "Illinois youth justice advocacy group called for the abolition of life-without-parole sentencing for youths 17 and under on Wednesday."  Here are more details from the article:

The Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children interviewed 103 state prisoners who got that maximum sentence even though they were 14 to 17-year-olds. The oldest prisoner who talked about his life-without-parole sentence as a youth, is now 47.  The study concluded that adolescents should have the chance to come before a parole board within the first 15 to 20 years of their life sentence.

The group said it is inhumane to lock-up minors for life without the chance of parole.  They said adolescents are less culpable than adults and are capable of being rehabilitated. The coalition pointed out that the  U.S. Supreme Court 2005 recognized that children are “categorically less culpable” for their crimes because their brain development is still evolving.  Some psychiatrists said that young adults are not necessarily less culpable, but their developmental stage needs to be considered.

A lot more information about the report can be found at this Northwestern Law School webpage.  The executive summary from the report is available at this link, and the full report is available here.

February 14, 2008 at 10:36 AM | Permalink


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How anyone can believe that a person who commits a crime at the age of 17 years, 364 days is "categorically less culpable" than he would be if he committed the same crime the next day if difficult to understand.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Feb 14, 2008 11:05:13 AM

Kent, line drawing is always going to be necessary in all aspects of the law. Therefore, the issue is not whether someone who is 17y.,364d old is less culpable, but rather whether at some point, a person is categorically too young to get life w/o parole. If you answer that question in the affirmative, then you must draw the line somewhere. IMO, 17 seems a rational place, considering that that age is frequently used as a "line-drawer" in our American legal and political system.

Posted by: DEJ | Feb 14, 2008 11:34:31 AM

As Public Defender out here in the flat lands I just can't seem to figure out the rationale behind the severe punishments imposed on Juvenile offenders. I have tried and tried to get into the mindset as a prosecutor - actually it drove me to be a public defender - But the "bad seed" attitude from the legislature as well as law enforcement (and some judges)just makes me sick. Why do we treat children more harshly than we do adults? Says something about our society I think.

Posted by: KS JyD | Feb 14, 2008 11:46:14 AM

"Therefore, the issue is not whether someone who is 17y.,364d old is less culpable...."

On the contrary, that is precisely what the claim being made, "categorically less culpable," means. Once one recognizes that development is a continuum, a claim that people who have not yet reached their 18th birthday are "categorically less culpable" than people who have is obviously preposterous.

The correct approach is to consider age as one circumstance among others, with the facts of the crime being among the others. For a rape, torture, and murder committed on the eve of the defendant's 18th birthday that would have warranted a death sentence the next day, LWOP is the most appropriate available sentence.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Feb 14, 2008 11:46:32 AM

Therefore, the issue is not whether someone who is 17y.,364d old is less culpable, but rather whether at some point, a person is categorically too young to get life w/o parole.

Perhaps you're right. But if so, 17 years old is a bad place to put the line. I think most would agree that 12 or 14 is categorically too young to get life. 17, not so much.

Many 17-year-olds are too young, but not so many that sentencing judges or juries shouldn't be able to make individualized determinations of whether the particular defendant is too young. Maybe 17-year-olds should be exempt from any statutes that would make lwop automatic, but I wouldn't go further than that.

Posted by: | Feb 14, 2008 11:47:48 AM

I just can't seem to figure out the rationale behind the severe punishments imposed on Juvenile offenders.

Might it possibly be the brutal nature of their crimes? And how, I ask, are we treating juveniles more severely than adults if we sentence both juveniles and adults to LWOP if they perpetrate a heinous rape/torture/murder? Indeed, can anyone cite a case where a juvenile is sentenced to LWOP for anything other than murder?

It is one thing to say that some juvenile crimes should be punished less severely or that those who commit crimes when young should be eligible for parole sooner (drug crimes come to mind). It is another to add murder to the list. Even Professor Berman has stated that our sentences for violent crimes are often too low.

Posted by: Random Clerk | Feb 14, 2008 3:59:47 PM

KENT: How can anyone believe that a person at the age of 17 years, 364 days cannot is not mature enough to go to war, but is mature enough a day later? Or that that a person at the age of 17 years, 364 days is not mature enough to drink a beer and has to wait another 1000+ days until he legally can?

As you know, we draw these kinds of debatable age-based lines in our legal system all the time. And, of course the very line you are complaining about, Kent, was drawn by the US Supreme Court as a matter of constitutional law in Roper. So, not just anyone, but five Supreme Court Justices think the age-based line you lament is constitutionally required!!

As you should know, the REAL issue isn't how can anyone believe that an age-based line needs to be drawn, it is over who will draw the line and exactly where. Unless and until you start complaining about line-drawing in how we decide what age entitles one to the benefits of a beer, I hope you will temper your accusations about people who want to draw similar lines in how we deicde who should suffer the extreme harms of LWOP.

Posted by: Doug B. | Feb 14, 2008 7:10:57 PM

Deciding you need to draw a line and declaring that a person on one side of the line is "categorically less culpable" than a person on the other side are two very different things.

I did not make "accusations" about people who want to draw this line generally. I said this particular argument being asserted for the line is preposterous, and it is. The assertion that 17-year-old murderers are less culpable than 18-year-old murderers without exception, which is what "categorical" means, is preposterous on its face. An argument is not a good one simply because you agree with the result that argument is made to support.

On the substantive issue, the other rigid age lines given as examples in this thread are lines that society has deemed necessary to draw for the entire population because it is not practical to make an individual assessment of when each person is mature enough to vote, enlist, drink, make contracts, etc. They are not drawn because anyone seriously believes that every 18-year-old is better able to cast a mature and thoughtful vote, for example, than any 17-year-old. In the case of murderers, we are dealing with much smaller numbers of people, and it is practical to assess maturity along with everything else in a proceeding where life without parole is a discretionary, not mandatory, sentencing choice.

All the arguments against mandatory minimums and in favor of sentencing discretion apply just as strongly against the mandatory maximum being proposed here.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Feb 14, 2008 7:40:23 PM

I don't recall specifics, but I've read that the 'brain maturation' process generally extends well into the twenties.

If you accept that the degree of culpability (and/or likelihood of rehabilitation) is rather proportional to the degree of maturation, and accept that there is still significant maturation in the final years of that process, it's not unreasonable to say that persons under the age of eighteen are categorically less culpable than fully "matured" adults. I suppose it's possible that there are 17 year-olds that have fully matured in this sense, but I would think unlikely, and almost certainly not of significant number in any case. But perhaps I'm wrong there.

It is those in the final years of the maturation process, those who are 18, 19, or even early twenties, where the type of judicial discretion/analysis Kent proposes might be most apropos.

Posted by: | Feb 14, 2008 8:39:18 PM

Kent, you're ignoring that in some states (for example, Virginia), if the juvenile defendant was charged and convicted of capital murder, the sentence of life without parole will be mandatory (see. Va Code Sec. 18.2-31 declaring capital murder a Class 1 felony and Va. Code Sec. 18.2-10 setting the punishment for classes of felonies - keeping in mind there is no parole in Virginia, so a life sentence equals LWOP). Thus, there would be no individualized assessment to decide whether LWOP is appropriate. Such an assessment would only take place if the juvenile was convicted of First Degree Murder. Thus, your argument is actually in favor of mandatory LWOP for juvenile offenders for cases where death could be imposed in states like Virginia (and I'm sure that other states are similarly situated).

Of course, if the legislature would make being a legal adult (i.e. over 18) an element of capital murder, such that juveniles could be at most be convicted of First Degree Murder, there would be such an assessment (the penalty for First Degree Murder under 18.2-32 and 18.2-10 is Life or at least 20 years). So, it seems pretty clear that Kent is not actually arguing for an individualized assessment, and instead just wants to automatically give those who the Supreme Court has held cannot be executed (the mentally ill, developmentally disabled, and juveniles) life without parole. Such a result does not seem desirable (although it is the current practice in my home state).

Posted by: Zack | Feb 20, 2008 2:22:10 PM

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