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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Life sentences without parole for minors?


Should minors ever be given life sentences without the chance of parole?

Yes, I dare delve into the murky waters of politics -although I don't view this topic as political, there are many who allow their political affiliations guide their moral compass on every subject -allowing everything to become a question of what best meshes with their political views rather than what's best for people.


below are three excerpts from three news sources that should convey the gist of the story.


From the Christian Science Monitor (I know...the opposite of a nonpolitical publication)

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that it is unconstitutional for state laws to require juveniles convicted of murder to be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

From the New York Times

WASHINGTON — Some 2,000 juvenile offenders serving life sentences without parole were given hope of eventual release by the Supreme Court on Monday. The court ruled that laws requiring youths convicted of murder to be sentenced to die in prison violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. 

From FoxNewss.com

In more than two dozen states, lawyers can now ask for new sentences. And judges will have discretion to look beyond the crime at other factors such as a prisoner's age at the time of the offense, the person's background and perhaps evidence that an inmate has changed while incarcerated.


Now for the interesting part...

Do you believe minors should ever get life sentences without the chance of parole? When I hear that question I think about several things.  First, I think about how I was as a teen.  Typical, I suppose: Reckless, impulsive, careless.

I did many foolish things that could have resulted in harm to myself or others (Like throwing rocks at cars,launching my mother's Volvo into the air off a hump in the road at 80 miles an hour, tossing a slice of pizza on the windshield of on oncoming car and sliding down a homemade zip-line from a 60 foot tree into a swimming pool -the line was laundry cord and the 'pulley' was a bath towel). Reckless? Yes. Impulsive? Yes. Careless? Yes.

Any one of these actions could have hurt or killed someone. Would the teenage J.R. Wagner deserve a life sentence if that slice of pizza caused a van full of children to swerve off the road, burst into flames and kill everyone inside?

Okay, I agree that most if not all of the minors serving life sentences are not incarcerated because the tossed a slice of pizza at an oncoming vehicle.  They're murderers, multiple murderers, repeat murderers.  What about them?

In an article by Kristen Burillo in The Civic Column called Less capable brain, less culpable teen?, she says:

There may be perfectly good, scientific, research-based, biological, developmental explanations for why those teenagers you know are impulsive, emotional, giving into peer pressure, not thinking about the future, unconcerned with consequences, and taking a lot of risks.

So, if the teenage mind isn't finished developing and as a result, cannot make the same good decisions as a fully developed adult brain, shouldn't we (society) take that into consideration when sentencing minors for crimes committed during this period of brain development? Or, perhaps, is that simply an excuse for bad behavior?

When sentencing anyone -adult or minor to life without parole we (society) are saying there is no chance whatsoever for rehabilitation of this person. Using the same argument above, if the minor's brain is still developing, wouldn't they be much more receptive to a rehabilitation program? Is the recidivism rate lower for juveniles vs adults?

Just as an example, this article from the Indiana Department of Correction states that the 2010 recidivism rate for juveniles is 39.2%.  So 39.2% of juveniles returned to incarceration for another crime. 73.5% of juvenile releases HAD NOT been incarcerated in an adult facility between 2007 and 2010.

From the Bureau of Justice Statistics, whose website is pathetically outdated and about as easy to navigate as an Apollo command module, I found this figure: 67.5% of adults released in 1997 were arrested for a serious crime between then and 2002.

While not apples to apples, it appears as though the recidivism rate among juveniles is much lower than adults.

Arguments can be made for either case.  Both based on a combination of emotion and fact.

 I believe most people deserve a second chance -a chance to prove themselves. I have spoken to groups of troubled teens (troubled meaning they've been through the juvenile justice system) and they're one of the brightest, most engaging and motivated groups of kids I've ever stood in front of.  Can these same kids be locked up without the chance of ever seeing the light of day? What would that do to their curiosity, their desire to be better, to learn, to move on? If it were me, I'd probably laugh in the face of any attempted rehabilitation because what's the point?

Can the same be said for murdering minors? Are they any less receptive to rehabilitation than their non-murdering counterparts? Are we willing to discount the research that suggests their brains aren't capable of grasping the severity and consequences of their actions as they are committing the crime? OR should they be held accountable for those actions regardless of their age?

Here is the other problem: The majority of minors who are released return to the same society that no doubt had a major impact in their decision to commit a crime to begin with.  Not only that but because they've been convicted of a felony, finding a job is nearly impossible (especially in this economy).  So they're back in the same neighborhood with nothing to keep them occupied...what's going to happen?  They're going to call their old friends who are still stuck in their old ways and sooner or later, they may fall onto old habits.

Is there a way to not return the serious offenders to the same environment from which they came?  I have no idea. Foster care for the minors?  Would it make a difference?  Most likely.

So coming full circle and asking, should minors be given life sentences without parole? I don't think they should.  But...yes but.  I don't think flipping the switch from no chance of parole to chance of parole is the complete answer.  Something needs to be put into place (especially with these, the most violent offenders) to keep them from stepping back into the old lifestyle if parole is granted. Government jobs? -save tax dollars, perhaps. Mandatory military service in a non-combat position? Who knows.

The light of potential burns bright in the eyes of our youth (as does the light of stupidity).  We (society) are obligated to harness rather than snuff that potential whenever possible.

I'm not standing on my high-horse sending down decrees to the little folk without consideration of the issues that I'm well aware I'm not aware of. I ask more questions than I answer.  I'm just tired of people taking a stance on a subject as important as the youth of our country simply based upon what their radio talk show host told them.


That was WAY too heavy and WAY too long.  More fun and brevity next go-around.  I promise!

As always, find interviews, writing samples, videos, contests and more on my website.

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  1. Completely from memory and too lazy to research, a minor who is NOT incarcerated has an even lower recidivism rate. But, those rates include minor offenses.
    Life in prison for 1st degree murder, with or with out the possibility of parole really isn't much of a question. 2,000 murderers, 2000 men and women who killed another person are affected by this. Let's say they all get paroled tomorrow (I know, but let me have license), using the figures above, only 780 of them will murder someone else...

    These are not the pizza throwers, these are not the 'reckless' yutes. These are hard-core criminals.

    And all of that said, the opportunity to rehabilitate oneself is a fine option, but let's not allow judges to start paroling these offenders too soon, who holds the keys?

  2. Good points, Stone.

    Just to clarify, recidivism simply means being arrested for a felony, not necessarily convicted of the same crime. That being said, the data for murdering minors who murder again isn't easily available (like Stonemason, I'm too lazy to look very hard) but is certainly much, much lower than the arbitrary figure provided by Stonemason.

    My main point here is (I believe) that giving someone a second chance, regardless of the first offense (in most cases) especially a minor, is a worthwhile endeavor. I'm not saying to put this decision on one person (a judge) or even that the current system could handle the reintegration of these people, simply that we as humans are obligated to see that our children are lifted up rather than beaten down. A better way is out there. Hopefully someone smarter than me is working toward a more appropriate resolution.

  3. Everyone deserves the opportunity to 'repent', or some such. I agree. The more I thought on this, the more I lean towards allowing some sort of parole option.

    My recidivism comments were more geared toward the non-violent offenders I guess and I did that poorly. If we can somehow keep the non-violent kids out of juvie, they usually don't continue to commit crimes. Yes, this is leftover data in my brain from my 1980's Criminal Justice/Pre-law days, but I am pretty darn sure kids today are not much different than kids then. Keep them out of the pokie and they don't associate with as many hoodlums.

    There are many more options today (not enough), and the NIMBY's make it hard for places like Vision Quest to operate (http://www.vq.com/index.php).

    Again though, these are the non-violent folk we are talking about, or those who truly accidentally caused bodily harm. There are some folks that you just can't reach, and I am sure that we can figure out how to NOT parole everyone.

    See, that is my problem. If parole is an option, many feel that it must be used. As long as parole boards can monitor who is released, perhaps dropping this 'without parole' could work. But...and for my 'but' you will need to visit stonepoet.blogspot.com

  4. Agreed. Not everyone should be handed a get out of jail free card.

    P.S. Your links are much more effective when they are actual links...just sayin'