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.
How should a society treat its youngest criminal offenders? And the families of victims of those offenders?Skip to next paragraph
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Half a dozen states are now weighing these questions anew, as they consider whether to ban life sentences for juveniles that don't include a option for parole – and whether those now serving such sentences should have a retroactive shot at parole.
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.
"Kids should be punished, and held accountable. The crimes we're talking about are very serious crimes," says Alison Parker, deputy director of the US program of Human Rights Watch and author of a report on the issue. "But children are uniquely able to rehabilitate themselves, to grow up and to change. A life-without-parole sentence says they're beyond repair, beyond hope."
The sentence is automatic for certain crimes in more than half of all states, part of a wave of "get tough" laws aimed at cracking down on rising crime rates during the 1980s and '90s. Which means judges often have little to no discretion when they mete out punishment. In many instances, they are prohibited from considering age or even whether the juvenile was the one who pulled the trigger. About a quarter of the juveniles serving life without parole sentences nationally were convicted of what is known as "felony murder," says Ms. Parker. They participated in a felony in which murder was committed, but they weren't the ones who did the actual killing.
In Illinois, that list includes Marshan Allen, a 15-year-old who accompanied an older brother and some friends on a drug-related mission, and says he didn't know they were going to kill several people.
In California, another state considering doing away with the sentence, it includes Anthony, a 16-year-old painting graffiti with a friend when the friend produced a gun and decided to rob an approaching group of teenagers. His friend pulled the trigger, but Anthony – who turned down a plea bargain because he couldn't imagine paying for a crime he didn't feel he'd committed – got a life-without-parole sentence.
"There are people in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles that should never see the light of day," says Rich Klawiter, a partner at the law firm DLA Piper and part of the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children, which produced a report on the issue last month and advocates reform. "But those that show themselves worthy of redemption ought to be given an opportunity before a parole board."