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February 4, 2008

Finding "Compassion in Juvenile Sentencing"

Thanks to CDW, I just discovered the new blog Compassion in Juvenile Sentencing.  Here is how the creator has described her new project:

My name is Lisa Kenney and I became aware the number of individuals in my home State of Colorado who had been convicted as juveniles to Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) when I watched the Frontline documentary, When Kids Get Life.  I was so disturbed by what I’d watched that I began researching the subject of juveniles tried and sentenced as adults.  Based on what I discovered, I believe there are some serious problems with our justice system and with the way we, as a society view the children convicted of serious crimes.  This Weblog is a forum for presenting and discussing articles, rulings and issues related to this subject.

There is a lot of really interesting stuff on this blog, and I found this passage from the latest post especially moving and astute:

When I began writing this blog, I had assumptions about how the judicial system worked, but I never understood how gray so much of what happens is.  The cases that caught my attention are all high profile, highly publicized cases because of the age of the offenders and because of the nature of the crimes.

I’ve learned that the justice system and the laws that govern it can be profoundly impacted by politics, perceived public opionion and of course by the media. I’ve learned that most of those who’ve been locked away as children have been largely forgotten. The lucky ones have one or two people who stand behind them and support them.  The unlucky ones have been forgotten by even their families.

February 4, 2008 at 10:52 AM | Permalink


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Thank you so much for visiting my new blog and for mentioning it here. I am a regular visitor to Sentencing Law and Policy and, as I'm sure you can tell, I have no background at all in the law. The more I learn, the more perplexing I find the process to be, but I find your posts very helpful and I appreciate the time and the thoughtfulness that you put into them. Thank you again.


Posted by: Lisa Kenney | Feb 4, 2008 12:18:01 PM

I am an urban neighborhood and youth organizer. I feel the logic of sentencing juveniles as adults to be counterintuitive.

The decision to try youths as adults is hinged on the severity of the crime - the more heinous the crime, the more "adult" the criminal.

But the reality is, the more heinous the crime, the more it proves that the criminal does not fully comprehend its consequences.

The primary argument for NOT trying youths as adults is thus reinforced by the severity of the crime.

Posted by: Mark Tully | Feb 4, 2008 4:14:44 PM

Mark, try telling that nonsense to a family member of some juvenile getting a slap on the wrist for murder or some other heinous crime.

Posted by: federalist | Feb 4, 2008 10:57:13 PM

But the reality is, the more heinous the crime, the more it proves that the criminal does not fully comprehend its consequences.

By that logic, adults shouldn't be tried as adults either much of the time, because once a crime is sufficiently heinous, the criminal is absolved of any responsibility.

One of the things that makes a crime more heinous is premeditation. Premeditation tends to show that the criminal does, in fact, comprehend its consequences.

What's really going on, I think, is that society is willing to forgive youthful mistakes, but only to a point. Most people's visceral impression (perhaps not most, but mine, and I suspect many other people's) is that children who shoplift or get in fistfights or get their hands on illegal drugs haven't irreparably harmed society, have some capacity for reform, and can be forgiven. Society can give them a second chance. Many people (again, my intuition) aren't so willing to forgive and take a chance on a kid where the crime is rape or murder.

Posted by: | Feb 4, 2008 11:43:28 PM

"Mark, try telling that nonsense to a family member of some juvenile getting a slap on the wrist for murder or some other heinous crime."

I'm truly trying to understand why those opposed to alternatives to juveniles serving life sentences in adult prisons seem to assume that the alternative is a slap on the wrist. Most of the youthful offenders in my home state committed horrible acts. Some are serving LWOP for the stupidity and inability to comprehend the consequences of being in the wrong place at the wrong time because of our felony murder statute. Some were life-long victims of violence and sexual abuse, and some of them are mentally ill. Perpetrators of violent crimes need to be punished and they need to take responsibility for their actions. But when the perpetrators are as young as 14, 15 or 16, why is it so abhorrent to consider that their punishment should occur in a youthful offender facility where they aren't nearly as likely to commit suicide or become victims of rape and brutality or conversely, become even more sick and violent? Why is it so difficult to believe that a 16 year old gang member could, by the age of 30 or 40 be rehabilitated and possibly even transition back into society? I don't believe this is possible for all of them, but as long as they continue to be housed with truly hardened criminals and repeat offenders, we'll never know because nearly all of them, without the hope of ever leaving prison, adapt to prison culture and the violence inherent in it.

Posted by: Lisa Kenney | Feb 6, 2008 1:15:44 AM

Lisa, the reason we make such assumptions is that we have a memory. We know what happens when people who rationalize felony murder as "being in the wrong place at the wrong time" are given a place at the table in determining how young thugs are treated--we have out-of-control violence. In addition, Lisa, I don't think I've ever advocated putting youthful offenders with hardened criminals--I am not a fan of prison rape either. Nor is it fair to say that I think that a 16 year old gangbanger cannot be rehabilitated. Without question, some can. Of course, the problem is guessing which of them can. And the hazards of guessing wrong are too great to innocent people. Just ask the pizza deliveryman who got a gun stuck in his face by Lionel Tate.

At the end of the day, every one of us can do things that ruin our lives, just think of how many people are killed in car wrecks every year. Murdering someone when you're 16 is one of those things.

The other issue with juvenile punishments is fairness. If some 16 year old murders a family member of mine, how am I to feel when he walks out of prison in his twenties? More importantly, how is the inevitable future victim's family supposed to take it? Should they be comforted by the fact that people like you thought such a policy enlightened?

Posted by: federalist | Feb 6, 2008 2:05:12 PM

Recently in Ireland, a man was convicted of the murder of a young visiting student from another country. When he was 16 he was the ring-leader of an attack on a group where one of the victims died due to the injuries he sustained. Out of the group he was the only one to plead not guilty and was convicted for public order offences in relation to the attack. He got 5 years, and served 3 even though it was held in evidence he landed the fatal blows to the deceased. If the Irish criminal justice system wasn't so soft on youth offenders, another life could have been saved, but sadly it wasn't and no people are left with nothing but ifs and buts. So take your bleeding heart and ideas and explain them to her family and see what reaction you will get.

Posted by: justice | Mar 30, 2009 12:26:16 PM

What laws and legislators may help prevent juveniles from being tried for life?

Posted by: Emely Toro | Dec 8, 2010 2:52:23 PM

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