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What happens when youngest convicted murderers in US are released?

Curtis and Catherine Jones were 12 and 13 when they were convicted of murder, and at the time, they were the youngest Americans to receive that verdict. Now they're getting out of prison after 16 years.

Curtis and Catherine Jones were 12 and 13, respectively, in 1999 when they stood in front of a Florida judge and received 18-year prison sentences for killing their father’s live-in girlfriend.

They were, at the time, the youngest Americans ever convicted of murder. A first-degree murder charge was pleaded down to second-degree, which opened up the possibility of their release years down the road.

This week – after 16 years in confinement – the two siblings are set to be let out of prison.

The transition to freedom can be difficult for anyone serving a long prison sentence, but the Jones cases highlight the unique challenges facing young juveniles locked up for years, if not decades. 

The United States remains the only nation in the world in which juveniles can be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. For the Joneses, parole means picking up a life that they, in many ways, had barely even started.

“They’ve been in prison for so long that they’re basically coming into a different world because they missed their chance to develop and grow with the current times,” says Laura Abrams, a social welfare professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who specializes in juvenile detention.

In a 2009 story in Florida Today, Ms. Jones gave a picture of the life she has never known.

"Cellphones, the Internet, driving, and, you know, I never went to high school," she said. "I never wore makeup at home or got my nails done or highlights or any of that good stuff. I think I miss food, too, more than anything."

Investigators said Catherine walked up to Sonya Speights the night of Jan. 6, 1999, while she was working on a puzzle and shot her once in the chest with her father’s handgun before dropping the weapon. Curtis then picked up the gun and emptied the rest of the magazine into Ms. Speights.

According to an Orlando Sentinel article written at the time of the murder, law enforcement officials attributed the killing to jealousy toward their father’s girlfriend. But Florida Today reported that a member of the Jones family had sexually abused both Curtis and Catherine and that the two had killed Speights as part of a broader plan for revenge. 

Prosecutors said the effort that the siblings made in planning and attempting to cover up the attack was a factor that led to their trial as adults.

Now, the brother and sister will need to learn how to function as adults in a society unfamiliar to them.

Professor Abrams gave the example of a youth prisoner she researched who was tried as an adult at 15 and released five years later.

“Survival is the No. 1 issue,” she says. “He had no plan, no job, nowhere to go, and no place to call home.”

Abrams adds that the US criminal justice system does little to help convicts who move from juvenile detention facilities to adult prisons.

“There’s a culture shift from an attitude of rehabilitation to an environment of punishment,” she says. “It can be incredibly damaging for their mental health and physical well-being.”

The Jones siblings have matured under lock and key, spending more than half their lives in federal penitentiaries. They still face a lifelong probation.

Now Curtis’s square jaw frames a filled-out face and bald head, which look far different from the youngster smiling out from childhood photos. In prison, he has become an ordained minister.

Catherine sparked up a pen-pal relationship with a man who learned about her case through a newspaper while stationed in the Persian Gulf. They married at Florida’s Hernando Correctional Institution in 2013.

In her case, Jones told Florida Today that being imprisoned – being able to grow up away from her relatives – might have been a blessing.

"There are some times when I look back at it and wonder if this didn't happen, would we have healed to the point where we are?" she said. "Did it take something like this to happen, or were there other things that could have been done? At 12 and 13, you don't know about anything else."

Limited research exists comparing recidivism rates between long-term juvenile prisoners and prisoners incarcerated when they were older, Abrams says. But she thinks the rates for juveniles would be comparably low. 

“What you have to understand is that they were often so young when they were convicted that they could have been on completely different trajectories beforehand.”

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