In the aftermath of the murders in our families, few things have been more upsetting than the amount of misinformation being circulated by advocates for those who murdered our loved ones.
Here are the facts:
All juvenile offenders, including teen killers, enjoy extra protections in our American criminal justice system – the best in the world. It is extremely hard to get a conviction for any crime in the United States, much less for a long sentence. The life sentence is extremely statistically rare for ANY murder case in the United States, no matter the age of the offender. Life sentences and long sentences for serious crimes even by younger offenders are rare, legal, constitutional, supported by international law and practice, and reserved for the most serious cases.
Even after three major Supreme Court rulings on the parameters surrounding the sentencing of extremely violent juveniles, life without parole sentences remain fully constitutional, despite a huge and well-funded advocacy movement on behalf of the offenders to ban them.
While we have stated repeatedly that we know all human institutions, even the criminal justice system, are flawed, and that we do not support over-sentencing of offenders or conviction of the innocent, we do know that the facts in our families’ cases bear out the legal consequences for the offenders.
We urgently ask, from the bottom of our hearts, that offender advocates stop repeating the misinformation that has characterized their campaign to free our murdered loved ones’ killers.
For example, they often repeat the wrong count of the number of JLWOP cases nationally - it is not 2500 plus, it is around 1300. And the most frequent mis-statement – that the USA is alone in sentencing teen killers to life.
Their lie: the United States is the only nation in the world that sentences juveniles to life. Not true. National research confirmed at least 13 other nations that have been documented to sentence juveniles to life – including Australia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. And a report from their own “side” – advocates against life sentences for teen killers – released in August 2012 reports the use of life and death sentences for juveniles throughout the entire Commonwealth, at least 45 nations. The August 2012 release of a Report from CRIN about life sentences for juvenile offenders further documents what we already knew of the use of life sentences for juveniles in MANY other countries. The source is particularly interesting since CRIN opposes long prison terms for even the most violent juvenile offenders.
Part of the problem is that comparisons between sentencing systems around the world are actually a bit silly given the entirely different legal systems. Many nations give the equivalent of Life Without Parole LWOP because they give very long terms of years – hundreds of years – so a virtual life sentence with no parole.
Given that there are several nations in Amnesty International’s reports denouncing nations that execute juveniles; we know that many nations do much worse. Some execute teen offenders if the crime is serious enough. Others sell youth into slavery, sexual or otherwise, and others commit them to hard labor, torture or worse.
Europe’s average sentences overall for all juvenile offenders, not just the seriously violent, are longer overall than those in the United States. Nations who execute teens include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan, and Yemen. Also, according to Human Rights’ Watch’s own website, in 2008 a group of Latin American and Caribbean nationals rejected a proposal from the European Union to ban juvenile executions.
If the advocates against JLWOP want to have a public policy discussion about how extremely violent teens should be sentenced, fine, let’s have one. But with all the stakeholders and all the FACTS fully at the table – which means including the victims and telling the factual stories of their cases, not just what offenders report to them in their interviews of them.
For more see the page on the media campaign.
What is the source of the misinformation?
Many juvenile advocates have at times only interviewed the offenders to get their stories, and not suprisingly, offenders have lied about what they have done, and those versions have been published.
Juvenile advocates often don’t interview the victims’ families, the police or prosecutors. They often don’t even examine the court records, physical evidence, or police reports. And so none of us can really be surprised that the version of the story of the crime is often distorted or wrong.
In fact, their version of the stories often paint the offender as a victim.
Facts of the crimes are proven in court. There are many examples of real further harm done to already devastated victims’ families by juvenile advocates because they publish the versions of the stories given to them by offenders.
See the “Research” tab above for study and research relevant to the issue of teen killers and sentencing.
MYTHS AND FACTS ABOUT JUVENILE LIFE (JLWOP) SENTENCES
1. MYTH: That the real “problem” with JLWOP is the age of the offender.
FACT: The real problem is that someone, or several someones are dead – murdered – or horrifically injured, and that an offender or offenders chose to commit acts of unspeakable evil against other innocent living human beings. And there is nothing but devastation in the wake of a murder.
What is at issue in all these cases are horrible, horrible murders and in all these cases tragedy surrounds the entire scenario. The problems go SO much deeper than just the age of the offender. Advocates against JLWOP need to do a much better job of embracing the full complexity of all these cases and talking about the CRIMES, not just the age of the offender. Reading their materials one could almost miss that these offenders are all convicted murderers, no matter what other circumstances surround the cases.
A very important legal discussion of the issue can be found in a scholarly paper from George Mason University School of Law.
2. MYTH: We address this “problem” with a discussion focused on the offenders in prison.
FACT: No, we address this tragic problem that cannot be “solved” by focusing on the crimes, prevention and the causes, public safety, offender accoutability, and the staggering and life-changing harm done (to victims) in these tragic situations.
Many advocates against the life sentence for teens sentenced as adults for murder have focused up to this point almost entirely on offenders and their messaging has been too much about “the poor kids in prison”. This will not help them build broad public support.
We ask that they change their approach to one built on inclusive restorative justice principles where addressing the harms caused the victims is the focus, and where victims, the key stakeholders, are completely at the table in any public policy discussions about the sentence.
3. MYTH: The offenders in these cases are CHILDREN.
FACT: 53% of all the offenders serving what these offenders called “juvenile life without parole” were 17 at the time of their offenses – hardly “children”. The vast majority of the remaining (about 35%) were 16. Only the smallest numbers of cases – publicized the most – were younger at the time of their offenses – single digit numbers. Legally every one of these offenders was found in a court or by state law to be legally an adult. Many states define adulthood at 17 or even 16. States vary on ages assigned for adult criminal culpability. Sometimes the law considers a defendant’s own individual abilities, maturity, choices, and behavior to determine whether they are tried as an adult or a juvenile.
Most of the JLWOP cases are from the 1990’s and are gang members, most with previous records of violence, often having been previously imprisoned as juveniles for violent crimes, even murder. In several states 17 year olds are legally adults. States define adulthood by age differently – for many states it is, indeed, 18. But for other states it is 17 and even 16. According a former Assistant Cook County States Attorney in charge of juvenile violent crime cases, JLWOP conviction have dropped dramatically in the last decade now that much of the gang leadership infrastructure has been locked up, and much better prevention mechanisms have been put in place.
Also, advocates who continually call teen offenders “children” need to consider the impact of this argument on the victims of these crimes, not just use it for its impact on the public. Calling these murderers “children” and publishing propagandistic photos is incredibly emotionally troubling to many victims’ families – some have described it to us as a dagger into them each time the offender is called a child. Many of these cases were 17 year olds killing, for example, 5 year olds. To hear the offenders called “children” all the time to the mother of a murdered young girl is beyond painful. Many of their victims are the real children in this conversation.
The most accurate is the legal term juvenile, young adult, or the social terms teen, youth, or adolescent. Juvenile advocates’ basis for using the term is international Treaty of the Child which applies to those under 18. But the USA is not a signatory to that treaty and the political and legal messaging in the United States needs to be applied in ways that are meaningful to our system and not hurtful to victims by making light of, or excusing the seriousness of the offenders’ choices.
4. MYTH: The ages of the offenders is not considered in their legal due process.
FACT: In most states there are layers of review afforded these offenders that are extra and aimed to look at the factors associated with their ages. Also, there are often extra avenues of appeals open in their cases. Many teens who are guilty of murder do not end up in the adult system in the United States. There are also processes in place in courts and in prosecutors’ offices that review and evaluate appropriate charges and avenues of prosecution to the individual situation and often there is some discretion afforded prosecutors and judges in these cases. Many would like to see more judicial discretion and less mandatory sentencing across the board in the American criminal justice system.
5. MYTH: Many of the JLWOP cases are innocent of their crimes, or were only “accomplices”.
FACT: Most of the offenders serving JLWOP sentences are guilty of their crimes, and were the actual “trigger men”, though some are convicted as direct accomplices with equal legal responsibility. And there are actually some cases where accomplices could be seen as even more culpable than the “trigger men” if they directed or ordered the shooting, as is often the case in some gang killings.
6. MYTH: The brains of these younger offenders are not fully developed, and therefore they are not fully culpable.
FACT: The argument of frontal lobe development is generally not applicable in these matters and is being misapplied by juvenile advocates. Yes, recent studies show the frontal lobe of the brain continues to develop into the 20s. But if this argument were relevant no one should be allowed to do anything – drink, fight, drive, marry, sign contracts, vote, until they were close to 30. And legal culpability for all crimes as adults should have to be raised to 25 at least. In fact, people learn right from wrong at a very young age and have the ability, generally, at a very young age to conform their behavior to what they know is right and wrong. The legal standard requires the ability to form criminal intent. Moral and emotional and cognitive development is by far advanced enough in early adolescence, if not before, to adequately keep anyone from killing another human being. Fully aware CHOICE to kill is often completely demonstrable in many of these cases. The best neurological information about this issue is found in “Brain Overclaim Syndrome”.
This major neurological paper, published partially in the New York Times Magazine, makes clear the wholistic picture of brain development and criminal culpability, and explains the frontal lobe theory weakness. It explains why the theory is wrong neurologically. Its author, who personally opposes life sentences for teens in any case, is one of many neurological experts making clear the point that the fad use of brain science to excuse criminal behavior is simply NOT accurate. It explains how the courts can go over-board when some new theory comes out, such as the late developing frontal lob. If this argument were true, then but for our frontal lobes, we would all be mass murderers. And we are not.
And if the argument were true, the adolescent murder rate would be the same world over – as brains are all developing the same. If the frontal lobe is the reason, then murder rates for teens should be approximately the same the world over. But this is not the case at all – adolescent murderers are higher in the United States. That has much more to do with culture and upbringing, and easy access to deadly weapons, than it does with frontal lobe development.
There is more to making a killer or not a killer than the frontal lobe. And development is not all one thing – it is complex. It is hormonal, sexual, social, cognitive, emotional. Good judgment and good behavior do not come only from the frontal lobe. The brain explanation simply does not hold water scientifically. If the frontal lobe argument were true, then but for our frontal lobes ALL of us would be murderers deep down. And that is not the case either.
The real issue in SO many of these cases, tragically, is the way our culture glorifies violence, and that so many young people are poorly parented, and, worst, what easy access young offenders have to guns. No one under age in the United States should be able to access a gun. And adults who allow them to do so are themselves culpable, we believe.
7. MYTH: Victims’ families will oppose any and all reforms and therefore should not be consulted in this discussion, because they are too “emotional” and too adversarial, and unreasonably so.
FACT: First, victims are vital stakeholders in this public policy debate and must have a voice. Victims Rights that exist in constitutions and statutes at all states and the federal level demand it. And often victims’ families have information about the facts of these cases not known to others in the case. Many of us who are victims strongly support some real reforms to the criminal justice system. We invite a national discussion about mandatory transfer of juvenile offenders to adult courts. We believe in extra layers of legal protection being afforded younger offenders, and encourage extra layers of review. All points of view should be considered in making such important public safety laws.
Actually, we have been present at hearings in several states that the emotion, hostility, and “unreasonableness” was all coming from the offender side. Contact us if you want specific and several examples, but we have yet to see a hearing on bills in state legislatures where the few victims “lucky enough” to know about the hearings and be able to attend, were anything other than honest in telling the facts of their cases, respectful of all present, and we have stunning and several examples of out and out hatefulness and rudeness openly leveled at victims’ families by anti-JLWOP advocates — including some legislators.
8. MYTH: That everyone convicted in the American criminal justice system deserves the sentence they get.
FACT: We know, and often victims know this better than anyone, that the criminal justice system is not perfect. Many people in prison are fully innocent. Many are over-sentenced or less guilty than what their sentence describes. Many guilty people go free, or are not sentenced as they should be. The “system” is far from perfect and needs reform.
And so while we all talk together as a society about what reforms we genuinely need to make, we must bring all stakeholders to the table – and victims are key to that discussion. Juvenile advocates and family members cannot make the case for reform on their own. Everyone involved can bring much that will enlighten and inform to the discussion.
But the way to RIGHT these WRONGS is NOT by balancing the repairs on the backs primarily of the victims’ families and make across the board changes in how often they have to go back – over and over – to hearings on the sentence of the offenders in their cases. Victims deserve as much legal finality in their cases as they can possibly have.
The way to right the wrongs in ALL cases of error and injustice in the criminal justice system is to address each case, protect avenues of appeal, raise the standards for rules of evidence and review prior to going to trial, maximize quality defense resources, make sure penalties are appropriate to the crimes and situations, and make strong systemic reforms in all aspects of the criminal justice system, not just for this one group of offenders.
9. MYTH: The USA compares much worse with other nations in its treatment of juvenile offenders.
FACT: Juvenile advocates are not telling the truth when they say other nations do not have teens serving life sentences for horrific crimes. 13 nations at least have the sentence, including Australia. And while many nations do not have JLWOP specifically, many nations do much worse by their younger people. Many nations have unbridled child abuse in the form of female genital mutilation, forced child marriage and rape, sex slavery, no education, horrific child labor, and many other forms of abuse. And other nations do not have the easy access to guns that we have in the USA, something largely responsible for a high number of the JLWOP cases in the first place. And for example, Europe’s average sentence for a violent teen is longer than that of violent teens in the USA overall. Our nation has a large population – third largest in the world after China and India that treat children horribly. We have tremendous programs and protections for our youth. The juvenile life sentence is appropriately very rare. Most states have significant legal protections for any juvenile offender facing JLWOP and usually their case has to rise to tremendous heights of accountability to receive JLWOP.
We urge those juvenile advocates who are trying to make their case about the need to reform JLWOP by making irrelevant comparisons to other nations to please look at America’s unique problems that face violent teens. Our access to guns is entirely different here. Our gang culture and economic situation is entirely different here. Our culture of fear is entirely different here. And our neglect of our young can be much worse here than other nations.
And while we support international human rights standards, and those do require a different treatment of offenders under age 18 – a point which we ALL agree to – that can be accomplished by a more protected legal process, which is often in place in the USA, but may need improvement in some ways. The fact is that some offenders in America commit crimes so awful, and with so much personal and repeated culpability on their parts, that natural life is called for, for public safety, and is what their victims families deserve – legal finality.
10. MYTH: There are 2500 plus JLWOP inmates in the United States.
FACT: Many published claims from some juvenile advocates, oft repeated in the media, have now been discredited. An early 2005 Human Rights Watch report “For the Rest of Their Lives” published an ESTIMATE of JLWOP cases nationally, admitted it was an estimate, and counted 19 year olds in their estimate methodology, even though 19 year olds do not qualify as JLWOP – only 18 and below. As the juvenile advocates published estimates, that there are over 2500 cases of JLWOP in the United States, has been repeated over and over again in the media. Senior Legal Fellow Cully Stimson conducted a research project on JLWOP and actually contacted every single Attorney General in the states to count the cases. (See independent research at www.Heritage.org). All but 6 states responded, showing a number of almost 1300 cases. The number could be slightly higher with the 6 unresponsive states. But buried deep within the Human Rights Watch report is their own admission that Stimson’s number was correct. Page 25 of the HRW 2005 report. The link is here: http://www.hrw.org/en/node/11578/section/2
The sentence says, “We have data on age at offense for 1,291 of the child offenders sentenced to life without parole.” When you read their entire report, including footnotes, you realize that this is probably a fairly good number, and may (as Stimson says in his book) represent the best number of JLWOP cases in the country.
Our request to advocates against JLWOP is: produce your names. Produce your case numbers. Produce the source of your numbers. Produce the records of the cases. Misinformation hurts our nation’s ability to have a legitimate discussion about the issue. The national news media often does not have time or resources to dig deeper and will publish what advocates send them. We have posted every single name of every single case we have found in the nation on this website. We know we aren’t even close to getting the 1300 names. Our two most comprehensive lists are 60 names we have from Illinois and 250 or so we have from California. We will publish here any lists of any cases of JLWOP from any state. The advocates against JLWOP need to STOP citing ANY NUMBERS of JLWOP cases in the USA until they can produce names of all the cases.
11. MYTH – Life Without Parole is sentencing someone to die in prison – it is “the other death penalty”.
FACT: Life without parole and the death penalty are two entirely different prison sentences. To call a life sentence in prison where the offender gets to grow old and die of natural causes is incredibly ignorant, and offensive especially to those who have lost loved ones to murder and understand what a real “death penalty” means.
- Most lifers have killed someone, or several someones. They gave their victims the only real “death sentence” in this conversation.
- Those that obscure the clear difference between a person who is alive and a person who is dead negates the life being lived by the person living it, even if behind bars. And it actually enters us into the brave new world of George Orwell’s 1984 where alive means dead, peace means war, and lies mean truth.
- Reasonable allies that prison reform advocates need to accomplish their goals will be put off by this transparent and ridiculous assertion that life sentences are comparable to execution, especially when the offenders did much worse to their victims. This talking point not only loses needed allies in the public but…
- It causes difficulty for the dedicated advocates who are working to abolish the death penalty, and to the inmates awaiting very real pending executions. Politically it is over-reaching.
- Those who genuinely seek abolition of the death penalty must be clear about the differences between execution and life sentences. Lawmakers will. The public will and does.
- The list of things that an offender can still do while living behind bars is long. This list that differentiates the offender from their deceased victims includes: marriage and parenting, family visits, college educations, publishing, writing, creating, loving, laughing, eating, drinking, sleeping, watching television, having friends, talking on the phone, talking to the news media, pleasuring themselves, participating in athletics and competition, medical care, support groups, therapy, art classes, library access, etc., etc., etc.
- Murder victims families who see this argument being advanced by juvenile advocates that teen killers sentenced to natural life have been “sentenced to DIE” are in many cases deeply traumatized, upset, and profoundly angered by this type of messaging.
- We are all living our lives under the metaphorical sentence of death. What brings meaning to all of our lives is what we choose to do with each of those days we are given. What can inspire us are the inmates who have chosen to make a real difference for good with their circumstances. We are sure that some of those inspirational prisoners would be as offended as we are by this ridiculous comparison between their dead innocent victims whose lives were ripped away from them and having to live a confined life as a result of that action.
12. MYTH – The issue of juvenile sentencing for murder is a racial problem.
FACT – It is clear that minorities are over-represented, no matter the age of the offender, throughout the entire U.S. criminal justice system, and in no way do we diminish the social questions this fact raises. Our two-tiered justice system for rich versus poor in our nation is a significant issue, and one we support reforming. We actually believe this is much more a matter of money than skin color (poverty is a cause of crime, and the lack of a good defense leads to longer sentences). But we also wish to note that unless the offender is actually INNOCENT of the crime for which they have been charged, or they are mentally ill, they are personally responsible for the consequences. We have stated clearly and repeatedly that we do not support the charging of the innocent for any crime. And while innocents have been documented to have been convicted and sentenced for murder a few hundred times nationally, the vast majority of those convicted of murder are guilty. And it should be ONLY that guilt and the individual facts of the case that determines the sentence. We do not agree that the prosecution, conviction and sentencing of the vast majority of those serving life for murder was in any way racially motivated by those in law enforcement. The way that offender advocates inject race into this issue of sentencing for teen killers is through the use of broad statistics. And those speak to different problems besides guilt or innocence, and appropriate sentencing for the truly guilty. But for example in the argument made in Illinois about race in sentencing of teen killers, the statistics used by offender advocates in publications failed to take into account that the highest African American population per capita in the nation based on census data lives in Cook County, Illinois.