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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."