Victims families are often extremely reluctant to appear in the media. It can be horribly retraumatizing. Many of us feel we have no choice – that without our voices, the media coverage will be incomplete, imbalanced, or even inaccurate. So we often choose to speak.
While we cannot possibly keep a comprehensive list of media reports that include reference to NOVJM on this website (or NOVJL, our original name), here are some samples of our appearance in the news media:
Kristina Grill, 15, was murdered in 1993 by her ex-boyfriend, who was also 15 at the time of her death and 16 when he was convicted. She’s seen in this file photo in Pennsylvania a year before her murder.
Nineteen years ago, Bobbi Jamriska’s younger sister was found murdered in a Pennsylvania schoolyard. As Jamriska grieved, one thing brought her solace: When a court found her sister’s 16-year-old ex-boyfriend guilty and sentenced him to life in prison without parole.
“When you get up every day, you think about what happened, but at least you know that there was that one constant, that life-without-parole was going to make sure that you never had to relive that part of it,” said Jamriska, 40, who lives in Pittsburgh.
But three months ago, the Supreme Court struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles as cruel and unusual punishment. While the June 25 ruling wasn’t necessarily designed to be applied retroactively, some youth advocates are trying to use it to free so-called “juvenile lifers,” setting off a series of battles over what to do with the approximately 2,100 convicted murderers who were handed mandatory life-without-parole sentences for acts committed as youths.
For victims’ families, the decision has had huge emotional, and in some cases, legal implications.
“After the [Supreme Court] ruling, everyone felt like they were reliving the trial phase and their loved ones’ murder,” said Jamriska, who traveled to Washington, D.C., with other victims’ families to protest the ruling.
She is part of a support group called the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers.
“There were a lot of families who didn’t have any idea that this was even possible,” she said. “For them, it was literally one day business as usual, and then the next day, on the news, their whole world got turned upside down.”
Pennsylvania, where Jamriska lives, has the biggest concentration of juveniles serving mandatory life sentences — about 480 of them, the oldest of whom was convicted almost 60 years ago and is now in his 70s, according to the Juvenile Law Center. Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court in Pennsylvania began hearing arguments for why some of the lifers there should be paroled, including the ex-boyfriend who killed Jamriska’s sister in 1993.
No one in the legal system told Jamriska that the parole arguments involved her sister’s killer. She found out from a reporter’s voicemail about three weeks after the Supreme Court ruling that lawyers were trying to get parole for him.
Jamriska was stunned, but she said a lack of communication is somewhat understandable.
Bobbi Jamriska, of Pennsylvania, right, and Jody Robinson, left, of Michigan, another member of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, are seen advocating for victims’ families’ rights on March 20, 2012, outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., as the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether mandatory life without parole was cruel and unusual punishment for convicted juvenile murderers.
“There never was a contingency for if this person who was sent to life in prison with no parole is suddenly able to get out,” she said. “The DA’s office isn’t really staffed to manage that influx of appeals and those victims who are trying to get information — I don’t blame them.”
The state Supreme Court has put the arguments on hold and didn’t give a timeline for a ruling. The Pennsylvania legislature still needs to come up with an appropriate alternative punishment for minors going forward.
“The sentencing scheme in Pennsylvania currently provides that for any individual, juvenile or adult, convicted of first or second-degree homicide must either receive a sentence of death or a sentence of life without parole. For juveniles, that mandatory sentence of life without parole has been declared unconstitutional,” Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center, said. “We think the courts should look to the next most severe sentence that is statutorily available in the state. Here, that means a sentence for third-degree murder, where you have a maximum sentence of 40 years.”
Levick suspects lawyers in other states will argue for that too. Since the Supreme Court ruling, North Carolina has passed a law replacing the mandatory life without prison sentence with a 25 years to life sentence; California’s governor is currently evaluating a law that sets up two different schemes where parole eligibility comes in at either 15 or 25 years to life, Levick said. In all, 28 states still allow mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors, a situation that will have to change.
“States can still impose life without parole,” she said. “They just can’t make it the only sentence available.”
As some juvenile advocates try to undo sentences that have already been imposed, Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, 54, president of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, worries about the families of their victims.
“Whenever you reopen traumatic wounds or you’re triggering a retraumatization, you’re talking about something that is going to affect people’s work, their sleep, their health, their marriages — everything,” she said.
Victims can only rely on each other for support, Jenkins said.
“They don’t register for victim notification and they don’t monitor what’s happening, and then you get these reactions like what we’ve been getting in our organization,” Bishop-Jenkins said. “We’ve been trying very hard to find people to let them know that this multi-billion dollar campaign to free their loved ones’ killers is going on and they’re just shocked.”
From left to right: Richard Langert and Nancy Bishop Langert are seen on their wedding day in 1987 in Kenilworth, Ill., with Nancy’s parents and sister, Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, far right. The Langerts were murdered by a 16-year-old in 1990.
There are potential legal issues too: Bishop-Jenkins’ pregnant sister and brother-in-law were murdered in their home in Winnetka, Ill., 22 years ago. It was Bishop-Jenkins’ father who found their bodies; his testimony served as crucial evidence in the initial trial. Eight years ago, her father died of cancer. She says the judge from the first trial has also died.
“My father was the best eyewitness to the carnage of the crime scene. We didn’t videotape him talking about the crime,” Bishop-Jenkins said. “We didn’t get the transcript of what the judge said at the sentencing hearing where he gave this speech about if anybody deserved life without parole, he did.”
She now fears she and her mom, 83, could have to face her sister’s killer in sentencing hearings in court. And while she doubts he will be granted parole, she said she worries lawyers may try again every couple of years.
NOVJL is praised for its position in support of victim-offender dialogue in some cases
Frequently writing and speaking about youth justice issues, especially restorative justice, has at times seemingly put me at odds with those who advocate for victims’ rights. Earlier this year I was in Washington, D.C., and met with members of a well-known group that lobbies for juvenile justice reform. They have opposed juvenile life without parole, harsh sentences, and adult transfer, while advocating for community based approaches and rehabilitation efforts to youth who have committed crimes.
As we were discussing my own interest in restorative justice, one of them expressed to me his doubts that those working for victims’ rights could ever work together with those seeking reform of the justice system. I was surprised, since one of the foundations of restorative justice is supposed to be that it is victim centered, and that harm to the victim is what must be addressed first in any attempt to respond to crime.
Last week my column on the resentencing of juveniles who had received life without parole drew a comment from the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers (NOVJL). The commenter had a legal argument in opposition to my own view, but more striking, at least to me, was the sentence that asked how I am going to, “support, inform, and not re-traumatize the devastated victims’ families left behind in these horrible crimes.”
I continue to reflect on that comment, and to ponder indeed how I am going to accomplish these goals. In moments of doubt I wonder if they are indeed incompatible. The way in which policies are changed is often adversarial, and such positioning can lend itself to demonization, even the demonization of victims of crime. This goes beyond civility, as important as it may be, to what values we as a society want to embody. I want to help create a society that cares for the needs of everyone affected by crime, most importantly of all the victims and their loved ones. If those needs are ignored then justice is not done.
Many members of NOVJL are in support of Restorative Justice, and their website points out many areas of policy where advocates of both juvenile offenders and victims can come together in agreement. Jennifer Bishop, the leader of the group, in an interview with Youth Radio, said that restorative justice isn’t applicable in cases of murder, since the victim cannot be restored, but also went on to say, “There’s another term — transformative justice — that seeks to transform the experience for both offender and victim. I’m a strong supporter of that.” This approach is about finding ways to transform what has happened, and is not dependent on the offender’s release.
I am heartened by these signs that there is indeed some common ground between those who support victims and those seeking juvenile justice reform. I intend to keep these considerations in mind in my own attempts to bring restorative justice to my community, and to encourage others to do the same.