The Public Policy Debate about Sentencing for Juvenile Murderers

Life without the possibility of parole is a sentencing option available and used all over the world in the cases some call the “worst of the worst”.

It means different things in different places. Comparisons often are not enlightening without the broader cultural context that explains the differences. Life sentences in many countries are still a term of years. Every U.S. State has differing procedures and definitions.

Many people believe that natural life sentences are appropriate for those who kill with malice aforethought, who show sociopathic or psychopathic personalities, and who represent a danger, perhaps for the rest of their lives, to society.

Other people believe that natural life sentences “give up” on hope for human improvement, violate human rights, are over-used for political reasons, and are a burden to the taxpayers.

Others point out that repeated offenses by those released, and the common cycle of sending them back into prison actually cost more in terms of victimization.

Committing murder also violates human rights – in the most ultimate of ways.

Victims’ families do not arrest, try, convict or incarcerate offenders – the criminal justice system in our nation does that all by itself. It is a system, in a democracy, owned and created by us all.

Public policy debates about the appropriateness of any particular sentence for any specific crime are quite reasonable in a democracy. Reforms to large flawed human institutions should be constantly worked on.

In any conversation about best practices in public policy, all stakeholders should be at the table. Good public policy does not result when key players are left out.

Clearly what we need is a very good, reliable way to “sort” offenders of all ages and distinguish  those who represent an on-going danger to the community from those who can become wiser and more well-behaved with age and can ultimately be released back into the community.

Such a sorting process is complex and is, in fact, what our entire criminal justice system does every single day all across our nation.

Those of us who have had loved ones murdered by teens were genuinely horrified and traumatized to learn of a significant effort to retroactively end the life-in-prison sentences being served by the offenders. Victims’ voices were and are still being left out of the debate about juvenile-life-without-parole (JLWOP).

Tragedy and Truth

There are no winners in this conversation about prison and the appropriate amount of incarceration for violent offenders – we know this issue is infused with tragedy. Nothing but tragedy.  Tragedy for the victims. Tragedy for their families and loved ones. Tragedy for the taxpayers and the endangered public. Tragedy for all those who work so self-sacrifically to protect us. Tragedy for the families of the killers. Tragedy for the killers themselves.

We are troubled even more by the inaccurate and incomplete information that has shaped much of the public discussion on the issue of juveniles who kill. Some have, for example, repeatedly stated that USA is alone in sentencing these “children” to “die in prison”, but this characterization is disingenuous and factually inaccurate. Unfortunately, inaccuracies are sometimes repeated in the media without verification.

We find it tragic that sometimes teenagers in our nation are capable of such brutal crimes. We find it tragic anyone is capable of them. We are completely devoted to the PREVENTION of these crimes, and especially recommend the earliest possible intervention for those who display all the warning signs of a troubled youth, as established by science and accepted by society. We must invest in rehabilitating youthful first-time offenders and giving them the best possible opportunity for rehabilitation, and increasing public safety.

The United States has separated the juvenile and criminal justice system for over a century. What offender advocates claim is sentencing “children” as adults is largely a debate of semantics. Legislatures and courts are the bodies we have empowered in our democracy to define what “Adult” and “Children” are, in different arenas. There are gray areas around every bright line in the law. There is a middle ground age range in all states and federally between puberty, defined differently in each state, and the age of 16-18 where states will consider teens to be adults depending on their individual culpability and heinousness of their actions. Most other countries follow this model.

Some juvenile advocates have cited brain research in support of their positions that has been widely interpreted in different ways. Their advocacy publications have featured photos of child models well under the age of 10. Some are as young as six. They are photographed in adult prison garb and are used represent juveniles sentenced to LWOP.  Pictures of these models are put on the cover of publications distributed to legislators, implying that children of that age are receiving life sentences.  This advocacy has been hurtful to many victims who feel that the publications have minimized the culpability of the offenders and not understood or embraced the harm caused to their murdered loved ones.

Some offender advocates advance the notion that in the U.S. “children are sentenced to die” in prison. There are several problems with this claim. First, the majority of juvenile lifers were 17 at the time of the crimes. Most of the rest were 16.  The term “children” is generally used to refer to juveniles who have not hit adolescence. Advocates of juvenile murderers use this inaccurate term to make people associate the offenders with characteristics of actual children, such as innocence. These offenders, who committed serious violent crimes and were tried in adult courts are not at all like actual pre-adolescent children. It is deeply inappropriate to attempt to make people associate 17-year-old rapists, mass murderers, terrorists, etc. with innocent pre-pubescent children. (See http://www.teenkillers.org/index.php/juvenile-lifers/teen-killers-are-not-children/)

The second problem with this claim is the idea that juvenile lifers are “sentenced to die in prison.” Despite the well-funded propaganda campaign promoting this idea, we do not “sentence children to die” in the United States. The juvenile death penalty was abolished years ago. Teen killers sentenced to a long or life sentences get to live long lives from behind bars, and lead productive lives if they so choose, unlike their dead victims. Anti-JLWOP activists also lie about specific cases. There are pages on this site devoted to denouncing the willingness of offender advocates to say almost anything to set these teen killers free. We, instead support truth-telling about these crimes and the murder victims.

The methodology used by advocates of reforming juvenile justice systems in their advocacy efforts often involves interviewing only offenders but not the victims’ families or the law enforcement. Descriptions of the teen killers’ crimes are sometimes minimized, excused, not mentioned at all, or lied about. We have a page about the lies regarding specific offenders. http://www.teenkillers.org/index.php/juvenile-lifers/specific-cases/

We feel it is important to state the obvious:

People who intentionally and brutally kill people should go to prison, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Most are extremely dangerous and some are sociopaths. Some of them have lost the right to walk among us. Society has a right to be safe.

But the public policy debate about life sentences for teens who kill rages on. Here is a good collection of differing point of views from various experts on the topic featured in the New York Times.

Here is our testimony before the US Congress in 2009 which gives a good overview of our views on the issue.

The System Works

Our nation’s Constitution is founded on the principle of the rights of states to make law about crimes and punishment, and criminal justice systems at the state and federal level allow for natural life sentences for those convicted of certain murders.  All sentencing laws are created through an extensive legal and democratic process. All offenders of all ages enjoy significant protections throughout the legal process.

Universally the nations of the world recognize “middle ground” in the age of offenders. For example, whether teen offenders are tried as adults or juveniles will depend on the seriousness of their crimes and the culpability they demonstrated.

The United States is the nation that invented the separate system of justice for juvenile offenders. We taught the world how to treat juveniles differently and to give them more opportunities to make up for their mistakes, to grow and learn. In some very rare cases when the offender shows clear personal culpability and commits a heinous crime with certain aggravating factors our legal system allows them to receive adult punishments.

But even then the system has mechanisms in place to rectify its own errors: clemency; post-conviction petitions; and the like. Many states offer extra layers of hearings for juvenile offenders facing transfer to adult courts for serious crimes including murder. An offender can argue his/her individual case before a judge and make his/her case that he/she should not be charged as an adult.

We note just a few examples of the system working to correct itself on a case by case basis with former “juvenile lifers” Mark Clements and Marshan Allen in Illinois, Tim Caffrey in South Dakota, and Sara Kruzan in California, all who had their sentences changed without any legislative changes to parole or the availability of life sentences for other horrific offenders. They were freed through executive clemency or the appeals process. And that is how our system should always work to correct miscarriages of justice. We strongly support a rigorous appeals process and clemency evaluation of all cases where the person convicted may be innocent or over-sentenced, given the facts of their case. None of us want anyone serving sentences that are too harsh given their role in the crime, and none of us want an innocent person behind bars.

After years of putting the nation’s worst murderers in prison for very long periods of time, the national murder rate has dropped dramatically, reducing in recent years the need for life sentences in many cases. The use of life sentences peaked in the 1990’s and the murder rate has declined consistently ever since.

Finally, the system has worked to “correct” and reform juvenile life sentences three times in the last 7 years. The US Supreme Court has ruled that juveniles cannot get the death penalty, that juveniles cannot get life sentences for non-murder offenses, and that juveniles cannot get  mandatory life sentences even if they commit murder. The system has worked to moderate penalties even for some of the worst offenders in U.S. history.

The Problem in Some States

Since sentencing varies widely for ALL crimes in all 50 states, federal, territorial, tribal, and military jurisdictions, there are no “one size fits all” prescriptions about sentencing and sentencing reform. At the bottom of this page is a chart that breaks down ALL life sentences for most states. Specific to the issue of teen killers, some of the choices that prosecutors and judges face in a few states are extremely limited. This is one of the reasons that there are strong pushes to reform the sentencing of teen killers.

This website well-documents the fluid and constantly changing national picture with regards to sentencing for juveniles who kill.

Some states offer only an “all or nothing” option when it comes to sentencing teens who commit deliberate, malice aforethought murder. Either they have to be tried as a juvenile and get a minimal sentence that might see them released back to the public in just a few years, while they are still very dangerous, or they have to be tried as an adult where they face a mandatory sentence of long sentence for any aggravated murder. Before Miller many states mandated that juveniles tried as adults be given life without parole sentences. 

Most murders committed by offenders of any age in the United States do NOT result in life-without-parole sentences. NOVJM believes that the widest range of sentencing options need to be available in every state and jurisdiction so that individual crimes, each with unique circumstances, can be evaluated by the expert decision-makers in the criminal justice system and offenders can be sentenced appropriately for their culpability, crime, and danger to the public.

The Juvenile Justice Reform Campaign in Murder Cases

Despite repeated public claims to the contrary, the USA is not the only nation that sentences some teens to life in prison for extremely violent crimes. More than a dozen nations allow life sentences for serious offenses committed by teens, and many nations treat juveniles in far worse ways. Some nations allow children and teenagers to be sold into slavery, the sex trade, forced marriage, or hard labor. Several nations allow the torture of juveniles. Europe’s average sentences for juvenile criminals in general is longer than the average sentences for juvenile criminals in the United States. And the U.S. Supreme Court abolished juvenile executions in 2005, which several nations still allow.

And some offender advocates have published inaccurate and incomplete information about the crimes in a manner which makes the killers appear less culpable. An informed public policy debate about any issue, including this one, must be based on accurate and complete facts.

Retroactivity in Legislative Proposals is NOT Workable

We have been involved in this issue for years. Noting is more clear than the fact that juvenile justice reform can NOT work when it is retroactive. But this issue has plagued us like no other. Can and should courts go back and rewrite history when the guilt of the offender is not in doubt and the victims’ loved ones lives will be the most profoundly affected by constant re-opening of the worst traumas in their lives?

Retroactivity raises serious issues of fairness, constitutionality, separation of powers, due process, victims rights, and legality.

Retroactive proposals in ANY legislative arena are highly, highly problematic and almost never allowed. Think about it – changing the law going backwards? Judging people and situations by standards that did not exist at the time the law was applied?

Legislation cannot be retroactive to INCREASE penalties for an offense. Imagine how unfair that would be! The retroactive reduction of penalties has all the same problems. Constitutional separation of powers between the branches of government are violated. Victims’ and offenders’ rights to due process are violated if legislation. Constitutional provisions requiring fair treatment of victims are violated.

We urge juvenile advocates to identify the reforms they want to make and change the laws PROSPECTIVELY, if they can.

Victims’ Rights

Crime victims in all 50 states and federally have statutory and constitutional rights which include being informed of and heard in all procedural matters pertaining to their cases. Advocates who claim to support the human rights of the guilty offenders, and who also seek to end JLWOP sentences, ought to recognize and support these victims’ rights. There are moral, legal, and strategic reasons why supporting victims’ rights is a good idea. And victims’ rights are not a zero sum game that detract in any way from the rights of the accused.

Victims rights are human rights.

We have a right to legal finality in our cases. We have a right not to be tortured for the rest of our lives and our children’s lives by the regular trauma of the parole process if the offender will likely never meet the standards for release back into society.

Have Some Offenders Demonstrated Through Their Actions That They are too Dangerous to Walk Among Us?

There is one fundamental difference in world view between NOVJM and some offender advocates. Some offender advocates believe that all human beings are “redeemable”, for want of a better word, and can ultimately live safely, productively, and freely among us. We disagree. Parolees, even as old as in their 90’s have committed murder upon release. We believe that the crimes which some of these offenders have committed can rightfully be called “evil.” We believe that these crimes demonstrate such disregard for human life that the offenders have lost the right to walk among us.

See the “Offenders” tab above for more.

Victims’ Families are Key Stakeholders in this Public Policy Discussion

Many criminal justice reformers, including opponents of JLWOP, state publicly that they support Restorative Justice. RJ is a philosophy that approaches criminal justice as a community problem – one best solved with all the stakeholders at the table. Tribal cultures, for example, would address a crime by bringing together the offender, the victim, their families, community leaders, and anyone else affected by the crime. They would sit in circles and require the offender to take responsibility for his actions, and to make amends to the best of his abilities.

In this current public policy debate regarding teen killers, victims’ families have been publicly expressing concern about the priorities of offender advocates. We urge offender advocates to behave in a manner consistent with Restorative Justice principles: an approach that brings all the stakeholders to the table.

Our Goal

We seek to protect the public from offenders like the ones who murdered our loved ones and to protect the rights of all crime victims. Natural life sentences have to be available for those rare cases of criminals who are too dangerous to be allowed to walk among us.