The Public Policy Debate about JLWOP



Life without the possibility of parole is a sentencing option available and used all over the world. It means different things in different places. Comparisons often do not enlighten without the broader cultural context that explains the differences.

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 repeat offenses by those released, and the common repeat cycle back into prison actually costs more in victimization, and the toll of violent crime.

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 appropriate 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 any age into those who represent an on-going danger to the community from those who can serve a period of time accounting for their crimes, but get wiser and better behaved with age and ultimately seek release 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 a few years ago of a significant effort to retroactively end these life in prison sentences. Victims voices in the life sentence for juvenile killers policy work were being left out.

Tragedy and Truth

There are no winners in this conversation about prison and appropriate 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 public so endangered. 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, therefore, even more by the inaccurate and incomplete information that has shaped much of the public discussion of this 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 PREVENTION of these crimes, and especially recommend the earliest possible intervention with those who display all the warning signs that society and science now have a pretty good idea about in troubled youth. We must invest in turning around youthful first time offenders for the fullest possible opportunity for rehabilitation, and for all our public safety.

The United States separated the juvenile and criminal justice system in our nation 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 “Child” is, 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 find teens to be adults if their individual culpability and seriously heinous actions so qualify them. Most 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 who are being represented as sentenced to life. The advocacy been hurtful to many victims because these victims feel that the publications have minimized the culpability of the offenders and not understood or embraced the harm caused to their murdered loved ones. Their methodology often involves interviewing only offenders but not the victims families or the law enforcement.

Despite the well-funded propaganda campaign to the contrary, 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 sentence get to live long, full and, from behind bars, productive life if they so choose, unlike their victims. 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, exist only to support truth-telling about these crimes and the murder victims.

Some offender advocates advance the notion of “children sentenced to die” in prison. These offenders are treated by the courts as adults, and the majority are 17 years old. Descriptions of the teen killers’ crimes are sometimes minimized, excused, or not mentioned at all. Child actors as young as 6 years old have been photographed in adult prison garb and put on the cover of publications distributed to legislators, implying that children of that age are receiving life sentences.

So 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, when teen offenders are tried, either as an adult or a juvenile, it will depend on the seriousness of the crime and the culpability demonstrated by the offender.

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 provides for adult time for adult crimes.

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 the life sentence mandatorially even if they commit murder. The system has worked to moderate penalties even for some of the worst offenders in US history.

The Problem in Some States

Since sentencing varies widely for ALL crime 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 our issue of teen killers, one of the reasons that there are strong pushes to reform sentencing of teen killers in some states is because some of the choices that prosecutors and judges face in a few states are extremely limited.


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 life without parole for any aggravated murder.

Most murders in the United States for any age offender do NOT result in a life sentence. 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 to sentence offenders appropriately for their culpability, crime, and danger to the public.

The Anti-JLWOP Campaign

Despite repeated public claims to the contrary, the USA is not the only nation that can sometimes sentence a teen to life for extremely violent crimes. More than a dozen nations allow life sentences for serious teen offenses, and many nations are far worse in their treatment of juveniles. Some nations allow the selling of children into slavery, the sex trade, forced marriage or hard labor. Several nations torture and some still execute juveniles. Europe’s average sentences for teen crime in general is longer than average sentences for juveniles 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 at this issue for years, and nothing is more clear than that legislative proposals for reform from juvenile advocates simply can NOT be made workable if they are retroactive.

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

Retroactive proposals in ANY arena legislatively 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! Retroactive reduction has all the same problems. Constitutional separation of powers between the branches of government are violated. Victims and offenders right to due process are violated if legislation that would change the outcome is retroactive. 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 detracts 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 us and some offender advocates. Some advocates believe that all human beings are “redeemable”, for want of a better word, and can ultimately live safely and productively and freely among us. We disagree. Parolees, even as old as in their 90’s have gotten out and committed murder. We believe that the acts which some of these offenders have committed can be called evil, and demonstrate such disregard for human life that the offender has 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 crminal 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 behaving in a manner consistent with Restorative Justice principles: an approach that bring 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.