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March 12, 2008

Media continues to cover juve lifers ... will reforms follow?

The Christian Science Monitor has this new article, headlined "States reconsider life behind bars for youth; With nearly 2,400 inmates sentenced to life as juveniles, the U.S. is the only nation imposing the mandate on children."  Here are excerpts:

Here in Illinois, proposed legislation would give 103 people – most convicted of unusually brutal crimes – a chance at parole hearings, while outlawing the sentence for future young perpetrators. The proposal has victims' families up in arms, angry that killers they had been told were in prison for life might be given a shot at release and that they'd need to regularly attend hearings in the future, reliving old traumas, to try to ensure that these criminals remain behind bars.

Advocates of legislation, meanwhile, both in Illinois and elsewhere, note that the US is the only country in the world with anyone – nearly 2,400 across the nation – serving such a severe sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile. They criticize the fact that the sentence is often mandatory, part of a system devoid of leniency for a teenager's lack of judgment, or hope that youth can be reformed....

The current legislation in Illinois is unlikely to go anywhere, with its key sponsor backing away last week and saying more time is needed to dialogue with victims. Reform advocates hope to have new legislation introduced in the near future. Colorado outlawed juvenile life without parole in 2006, and legislation is pending in Michigan, Florida, Nebraska, and California, while a few other states are experiencing grass-roots efforts.

Some activists against the sentence say they hope they can work with victims' families to take their concerns into account even as they do away with the sentence. In Michigan, where a set of bills is before both the Senate and the House, activists have had some success building dialogue with victims, says Deborah LaBelle, a human rights attorney based in Ann Arbor and director of the ACLU's Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative.

"We need to allow both voices to be heard," says Ms. LaBelle. But she feels strongly that the sentence is inappropriate for youth. "As every parent knows and as every social scientist understands, this is a time of ill-thought-out, impulsive lack of judgment, problematic years… To throw them away and say you're irredeemable as a child is a disturbing social concept."

March 12, 2008 at 01:12 PM | Permalink


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You know, you really have to hand it to the people at the ACLU, they really know how to frame an issue. We are told that LWOP is contrary to what "every parent knows" and that we're "throw[ing] them away". And for good measure, it's a "disturbing social concept".

I have news for Ms. LaBelle--no one likes sending kids up the river for the rest of their lives. It's not a pleasant task. But that does not make it wrong. Why? Because the issue is not as simple as simply throwing away a child or being big meanies, rather it is the fact that people who commit serious crimes, when they get out, often commit more serious crimes. Now maybe, that's a risk that we are willing, as a society, to bear, but I wish that people like Ms. Labelle would be upfront about that risk instead of looking down her liberal nose at the unwashed who worry about public safety.

Let's take a look at a sentencing decision that may well have cost someone their life. Demorio Atwater has been charged with the murder of a UNC student. Mr. Atwater, of course, has a record. B & E and later felon-in-possession. For these transgressions, Mr. Atwater received probation. Now an innocent victim is dead. What this unfortunate situation shows is that criminals, particularly criminals who decide they need to carry firearms, are dangerous. And it shows that lenience shown to criminals can get people dead. Had Atwater been locked up, perhaps a promising young life would not have been snuffed out.

Another example of lenient sentencing made the news recently. Beigenwald, a New Jersey serial killer just died in prison. Well, guess what, when this animal was 18 (I know that's not a juvenile, but it's close enough to make the point.), he killed two men. He spent 17 years in jail, and was paroled. He then killed at least three more people. Ms. Labelle's position virtually guarantees more tragedies like this. And these are not isolated incidents by any stretch of the imagination.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 12, 2008 11:26:44 PM

Your "blunt instrument" solution to every problem is well known on this board. You claim concern for victims, yet your definition of them is so narrow that your concern is clearly not one of humanity but of blinkered legalese. You forget, conveniently, that the law was written out of humanity and for humanity, and that the "victims" of virtually every crime extend well beyond those subject to the act. Unless the law and law-makers understand and accept that concept, bad law will result - and the rights of all those other victims will continue to be ignored - to the immeasurable cost to society.

Posted by: peter | Mar 13, 2008 3:23:58 AM

Has anyone researched whether juveniles are murdering more now that they know they can't be executed for their crimes?

Posted by: William Jockusch | Mar 13, 2008 7:52:06 AM

"Blinkered legalese"? What? Did that just sound good, so you decided to post it?

And Peter, what, do you think that because Demorio's mommy may have missed him while he was away in the pokey that he should have simply been released after being a felon in possession of a weapon?

Posted by: federalist | Mar 13, 2008 9:34:45 AM

"Has anyone researched whether juveniles are murdering more now that they know they can't be executed for their crimes?"

No. While the answer to that question is indeed interesting, most people think that it is far better to render a politically-charged slogan about the newfound dangers of kidz in the wake of R v. S.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 13, 2008 10:00:41 AM

Federalist, almost everyone found guilty of B&E is going to get out of jail sometime. In Virginia, the statutory max is 20 years - most first time offenders get probation only unless they were armed with a deadly weapon - a typical B&E/Grand Larceny defendant might get a year or two active time even with a prior record. In North Carolina, there are several different degrees of B&E. Most offenders absent a bad prior record will only get a couple of years at most. Your example seems to indicate that you want to argue that everyone convicted of B&E or any other felony offense should automatically be given life without parole because once they commit one felony they might commit another. I guess you must support S COTUS's optimal incarceration rate concept.

Posted by: Zack | Mar 13, 2008 12:49:50 PM

Well, Zack, I actually looked Atwater up. Here's the link:


You see, he was sentenced to probation for the B & E and for the possession charge, which happpened while he was on probation. No time. He should have done some time--maybe that would have deterred him from going on to more serious crimes, maybe it wouldn't have, but the victim in this case may not have been killed. The other offender, a juvenile, was also on parole. Just another example of Barack Obama's "just-us" system.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 13, 2008 1:57:28 PM

Federalist, I realize your are not a lawyer, and therefore we are biologically different, so I can’t hope to understand you, so I simply don’t get your reference to the some presidential candidate. Presidential candidates are free to say whatever they want to get elected. They are campaigning to a class of people that responds mostly to shiny things. Whatever the case, the quotations aimed at the lay people are completely irrelevant.

To everyone else: Criminal justice and criminal practice is usually the result of a collaborative and political process. This is especially true at the state level where prosecutors are more politically accountable than at the federal level.

The result is that in most jurisdictions there is agreement about where within the sentencing range a given crime will fall. There might be some written authority about this, or it might be based on an understanding of the policy and practice (as Zack alludes to). I wish that Professor Berman would send out some of his legions of research assistants to study this, because sometimes these policies are very enlightened.

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 13, 2008 4:45:38 PM

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