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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    At the Juvenile Correctional Facility on Girls School Road in Indianapolis, Indiana, inmates eat lunch.
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How should a society treat its youngest criminal offenders? And the families of victims of those offenders?

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.

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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."

The frequent citing of cases like Allen's bothers supporters of the sentence, who say such examples are hardly representative. Generally, the mandate is saved for such extreme offenses as multiple murders, killing of a police officer, aggravated sexual assault, and murder of a child.

"These guys are the worst of the worst," says Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, whose pregnant sister and brother-in-law were murdered by a 16-year-old in their Winnetka, Ill., townhome in 1990. She acknowledges automatic sentencing has probably punished a few juveniles unfairly, but notes that such individuals can always appeal for clemency. What she doesn't understand is bringing offenders back for hearings that, in her mind, would only unearth the past for the families of victims who thought they'd seen their loved ones' killers put away forever.

Ms. Bishop-Jenkins and her sister, Jeanne Bishop, are both prominent victim activists against the death penalty, and helped in the case that got the juvenile death penalty overturned by the Supreme Court three years ago. Now, they both say, they feel betrayed by the same allies with whom they fought against the death penalty, who never sought their input on this issue.

"Once you say this person could get out someday through this mechanism, you've just placed a crushing burden on the hearts and minds of the victims' families," says Jeanne Bishop, a Cook County public defender who has also defended juveniles. She and her sister both support getting rid of the mandatory sentencing and giving judges more discretion, but worry that in all the talk of the human rights of juvenile offenders, the rights of victims are being forgotten.

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."

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