Do Most Americans Support Releasing Teen Criminals?

In 2020, several anti-JLWOP organizations released a poll which they claim shows that most Americans oppose juvenile life without parole (JLWOP). However, the questions asked to respondents were worded in a manipulative and dishonest manner, meaning the results are not entirely accurate.

Question 1. Do you agree or disagree that all children, including those convicted of crimes, have the capacity for positive change, and if a parole board concludes they pose no threat to public safety, they should be paroled?

70% of people answered yes. However, the question was asked in a very biased way. First, the juveniles who committed serious crimes such as murder, are called “children.” But they are not children. As explained here, half of JLWOP recipients were 17 when they committed the crimes and most of the rest were 16. Most Americans would not consider 16 and 17-year-old murderers to be “children.” The term “children,” when used in this way, puts in mind an image of middle school aged kids. When the respondents answered, they likely were thinking of these younger teens. They probably were not thinking of the types of teens who get life sentences, 16 and 17- year-old murderers. And the word “children” manipulated them in other ways, such as making them sympathetic to and protective of the murderers when they otherwise wouldn’t have been, had the question been asked more honestly. Sure, maybe 70% of people believe that middle school aged children who commit crimes should be paroled if they pose no danger. But what about 16 and 17-year-olds?

Also, the advocates of releasing juvenile murderers refer to these offenders as “those convicted of crimes.” They don’t explain what types of crimes juveniles get LWOP for. Currently, in America, a juvenile under 18 can only get LWOP if they commit murder. And even then, the judge must consider mitigating factors. This means that only juveniles convicted of especially aggravated murders, such as murders involving rape, murders involving child victims, etc. get LWOP.  But the term “crime” can mean any offense. Of course, a middle school aged child convicted of a crime should be able to be paroled. But what about a 17-year-old convicted of a highly aggravated murder? 

The results would be more accurate if the question read:  “Do you agree or disagree that all juveniles, including those convicted of murder, including aggravated murder, have a capacity for positive change, and if a parole board concludes they pose no threat to public safety, they should be paroled?”

Question 2. “Do you agree or disagree that no one should be sentenced to life in prison without the hope or opportunity for a second chance based on a crime they committed as a child?”

54% of respondents agreed. But this question is also misleading, meaning the results are inaccurate. First, we have the problem with the use of the word “child,” as explained above. The phrase “a crime they committed as a child” greatly diminishes the serious nature of those crimes. When most people think of a “crime committed by a child” they do not picture the types of highly aggravated murders that result in JLWOP. For example, read our memorial for Antonio Santiago. Antonio was one-year-old when he and his mother were confronted by two juveniles who intended to rob them, a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old. When the mother did not give the robbers her purse 17-year-old De Marquise Elkins walked over to baby Antonio and intentionally shot him in the face and killed him. Or consider the murder of Shavanna McCann. Shavanna was five-years-old when she was lured to a vacant apartment on the 14th floor of a housing project by Johnny Freeman. Freeman, 17, raped the young girl. He then shoved her out the 14th floor window. Shavanna managed to hold on, begging for her mom. Freeman then shoved her again. This time, she was not able to hold on and fell 14 stories to her death. You might also consider what was done to the Bojorquez family in Arizona. 16-year-old Ralph Cruz confronted Lucila Bojorquez and her two children, six-year-old son Brandon and seven-year-old daughter Jenny, as they were about to drive home from an apartment complex. Cruz shot and killed Lucila, dragged her body out of the car, and drove away, with the two children still inside the vehicle. He later shot both children to death. All three men received LWOP. These are just three examples of highly aggravated murders that led to JLWOP. These crimes, and the many other remarkably brutal crimes committed by JLWOP recipients are not accurately represented by the phrase “a crime committed by a child.” 

Then there’s the term “hope.” This is an emotional term and is highly manipulative. Next, the term “second chance” makes the question even more biased. This is an emotional term, not a legal one. There are no “second chance” hearings in the criminal justice system. There are parole hearings and other types, none of which make use of the manipulative term “second chance” in their title. Furthermore, as explained here, many juvenile criminals have had “second chances” prior to getting LWOP. 

Of course, young children deserve hope and second chances. Most people would agree. But would most Americans agree that 17-year-olds who commit highly aggravated murders deserve chances to be released? Would most Americans agree that 17-year-old murderers who have extensive criminal histories and have already had “second chances” should be given more chances to be released? This poll question does not answer that. 

The question would get more accurate results if it read: “Do you agree or disagree that no one should be sentenced to life in prison without a chance to be released based on a murder they committed as a juvenile?” The question could be broken down by age. For example, “Do you agree or disagree that no one should be sentenced to life in prison without a chance to be released based on a murder they committed at age 17?”

Furthermore, respondents could be asked about if they think specific offenders should have a chance to be paroled. For example: “Should a 17-year-old who rapes a five-year-old and then murders her by throwing her out a 14th story window be given a chance to be released from prison?” Or: “Should Robert Houston, who, at 17-and-a-half-years-old, attacked a young woman named Raechale Elton with a knife, forced her to undress, raped her, slit her throat, tried to rip out her trachea, and stabbed her multiple times be given a chance to be released?”

Question 3. Do you agree or disagree that no one should be sentenced to life in prison without the opportunity for parole for a crime they committed as a child?

This question has the same problems as the ones above. When most people think of children, they don’t think of the types of juveniles who get JLWOP. This question would be more honest if it read: “Do you agree or disagree that no one should be sentenced to life in prison without the opportunity for parole for a murder they committed as a juvenile?”

Question 4. Do you agree or disagree that children who receive long sentences should have their sentences reviewed by a judge or parole board, with the opportunity for release if they pose no danger to the community, after no more than 15 years?”

This question has the same problems as those above. It makes sense that most Americans would want for children to have a chance to be released after no more than 15 years. But would most people say the same about older juveniles who commit aggravated murder? It is highly unlikely that most Americans would believe that a 17-year-old who rapes a five-year-old and then throws her out a 14 story window should have a chance to be released in 15 years when he is 32. The same can be said in regards to many other specific murders committed by juveniles. For example, consider Jose Arredondo. He was 16 when he kidnapped two-year-old Katherine Cardenas, raped her, strangled her, beat her, and murdered her. Would most Americans believe that Arredondo should have a chance to be released after 15 years? Or consider Donald Torres, who intentionally murdered a family of four, including the one-year-old and four-year-old children, by setting their house on fire. Would most Americans be O.K with Torres being released from prison after 15 years, serving less than four-years per murder?

This poll was done by Data for Progress, The Justice Collaborative Institute, and Fair and Just Prosecution, all organizations that oppose JLWOP. They have an agenda, and that was to make it appear that most Americans oppose JLWOP so that they could abolish it.