Friday, December 14, 2007

When Kids Get Life


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On November 21st I watched an episode of Frontline, called When Kids Get Life. I was completely unprepared to learn that in our country, there are over 2,200 juveniles who are in adult prisons serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

In the rest of the world, there are a total of twelve juvenile offenders serving life without the chance of parole. Let me say that again. In the rest of the world there are only twelve.

In my home state of Colorado, there are currently 46 offenders who were convicted as juveniles and who are serving LWOP. When Kids Get Life profiles five of them.

I feel compassion for the victims and for the families of the victims. I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose a loved one to a violent crime. I lived in the communities where two of the crimes occurred and well remember the shocking stories unfolding. But I don’t believe that the desires of the victims can weigh as heavily on how we choose to mete out justice in our society as it does.

Some people should never leave prison because they will always pose a threat to the rest of us. Some of these juveniles should probably never leave prison. But the concept that we, as a civilized society would decide that children are irredeemable, should have no chance at rehabilitation or redemption is appalling to me. The idea that a person who is too young to drive a car, join the military or buy a beer, can be tried and sentenced to stay in prison until they die a natural death, kill themselves or someone kills them is inconceivable.

I contacted Mary Ellen Johnson, the National Director of The Pendulum Foundation to see what I could do. An incredible woman, Mary Ellen has been fighting for changes in our juvenile justice system for fifteen years. She’s appeared on Frontline and on television programs broadcast in other countries. She’s been interviewed many times and has dedicated herself to trying to help a small group of people the rest of us would rather not think about. She’s been harassed and threatened for what she does.

Mary Ellen became involved in the case of Jacob Ind in 1992. Jacob Ind murdered his mother and stepfather in the mountain town of Woodland Park. I lived in neighboring Colorado Springs at the time and I followed the case in the news daily. During the trial, it was revealed that both Jacob and his older brother had been subjected to years of violent abuse and to sexual molestation. Jacob Ind was fifteen and he was tried as an adult and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Over the years, I’ve see his case in the news now and then. When I saw Frontline, I was nearly sick. Jacob Ind is now thirty years old and bears little resemblance to the skinny teenager we all saw on the televised trial. He has now spent as much time behind bars as he did in our world.

Nathan Ybanez and Erik Jensen, fifteen and sixteen at the time of their arrests were also profiled on Frontline. Nathan murdered his mother and his friend Erik helped him to clean up the crime scene afterwards. Nathan had been beaten and sexually molested by his parents for years. He’d run away repeatedly, but was always returned to his abusers. Erik and another friend's parents called the county social services to report the abuse and they were told that social services would take down a report, but the reality was that he was a boy over the age of 13 and with the caseload they had, nothing could be done. Nathan and Erik are both serving life without the possibility of parole.

I hesitate to shine a light on the stories of the abuse victims who killed their parents because in some ways, it feels like I’m trying to excuse their crimes or imply that the sentence of life without the possibility of parole should be used in some cases and not others. I do feel that abuse victims should be subject to special consideration, but I also don’t believe any juvenile should get this sentence, no matter what the circumstances of the crime.

No child should be sentenced to die in prison without any hope of redemption.

The Rocky Mountain News published thirty days of journal entries from Nathan Ybanez a couple of years ago. For me, they were a unique and heartbreaking view into what happens to children who go to prison. Rolling Stone did a piece on Nathan in November of 2006.

A fellow blogger coined the term obligation overload some months ago during a discussion about all of the social causes that need our attention: the environment, abused animals, children, disaster victims, incurable diseases, the homeless – the list goes on and on. I’ve always believed that we need to help other people and despite rumor to the contrary, there are a lot of good people who are making change and doing good things.

In 2006, in large part due to the work of Pendulum, Colorado passed a law changing the mandatory sentence for juveniles from life without parole to 40 years before the possibility of parole. Previously, offenders as young as 12 were eligible for life without parole. The law was not made retroactive, however, so it does not affect the sentences of Colorado's 46 juvenile LWOPs. A map showing the number of juveniles serving LWOP by state is here. We have nearly 50 in our state but several other states house more than 300.

There aren’t many people who are trying to help convicted murderers. Maybe that’s why I feel like I need to. I can’t seem to get it out of my head that no other country in the world does to its child offenders what we do here. There’s a call to action on the Pendulum site that lists some things that people can do to help.

Talking about it is something we can do here. I believe that through raising awareness and through expressing opinions to our state lawmakers, we can make slow change. I’ve written to all of my state representatives and state senators and I’ve been surprised and encouraged at the number of responses I’ve received.

Please watch the episode of Frontline, visit the Pendulum website and some of the other links and think about what you can do to help. If you have suggestions and ideas about what can be done to raise awareness or to accelerate changing the laws, even if you don't have the time to work them yourself, please comment or send me an email.

If you don't agree that juveniles should be given the opportunity at a second chance, tell me why. If you support change, tell me that too. Let’s talk about this.

25 comments:

Rob in Denver said...

I watched that episode, too, Lisa. And I also couldn't believe much of what I saw.

I think, clearly, cases must exist where children who've been sentenced to life without parole deserve it. Others, as in the case with Erik Jensen, should not.

I think, in Colorado, judges should have the discretion to mete sentences as they deem appropriate. Kids like Erik Jensen, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and scared out of his mind, do not receive justice with mandatory LWOP.

I understand our legal system isn't perfect. But certainly it can be more perfect than it is.

Great post.

Rob in Denver

Lisa said...

Rob, Thanks so much for weighing in and your comment strikes at the heart of my mixed emotions about the specific cases because it's really the concept of Life Without the POSSIBILITY of Parole that I can't live with. Even for the murderers, how can we determine for a person who is 15 or 16 or 17 that they don't warrant even the POSSIBILITY of redemption? Whether you believe the stories of those interviewed in the story or not, can we really believe that a juvenile who commits murder does so with the same mindset as an adult and can never be re-entered into society? Just leaving the POSSIBILITY there, doesn't mean that they actually will be paroled, but at least if a 16 year old who kills has a hope and a possibility, he might then have the motivation to grow and change and be worthy of redemption. Rapists and child molesters aren't locked away without the possibility of parole. Even the Manson family has parole hearings every year, right? Thanks for weighing in and if you see this, I would love to hear your thoughts on the concept of possibility.

Anonymous said...

Lisa,
I live in a country where state violence is turning to become the norm rather than the exception.
Yet for all the politics, Pakistanis hold the USA in high esteem, for its laws and the way the USA cares for it's citizens.
It is shocking to hear the concept of LWOP for juveniles; for a hardened citizen of Pakistan like myself. indeed it would be an even bigger shock to most Pakistanis.
The question that comes to mind then is: what makes young kids violent; social circumstances or financial.
In Pakistan's case it is a combination of both.
IMO: The war against terror is not attacking countries; but attacking circumstances that make people resort to terror.
State terrorism and individual terrorism seem to go hand in hand.
I really try to keep politics out of my responses; but this one had to be said.
Usman

Lisa said...

Usman, I thank you for your honesty. As you know, I don't typically talk about political issues either. I think that we clearly don't know why our children are violent, as evidenced by the number of school shootings and violent crimes committed by children here. I have my own thoughts and they're based on nothing but my observations and opinions. I think that in the cases of the Colorado juveniles who murdered their parents, if you believe that they were abused (and I do), it is not difficult to imagine an adolescent view of the world that victims of what amounts to domestic terrorism would see no alternatives beyond killing themselves or their parents. Most violent youth here don't kill their parents though and I think that in my lifetime I've seen a systematic erosion of a sense of caring and community that contributes. Families aren't stable, children are raised in childcare and by television, many of the violent children come from upper middle class and wealthy families and they are given everything. There is an emotional disconnection from other people now that I see with everyone. Families aren't as close as they once were. I don't really know, but I don't think it's financial. Maybe someone else will have a more coherent answer. But it's a great question because we don't seem to be doing anything to address why this happens.

steve said...

Lisa,

I didn't see the Frontline special, but I believe that a life sentence without the possibility of parole constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" when applied to juveniles. Only a couple of years ago, some states were executing people who had committed crimes as juveniles. The Supreme Court ended that. It probably will take a court case to end this practice. State legislators are afraid to be labeled "soft on crime," so it will be very difficult to end this practice legislatively in the states that allow juveniles to be tried as adults and sentenced to life without parole.

Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention.

kristen said...

Lisa,
This really is disheartening. A child is a child. Are some evil? Lost? Dangerous? Maybe. And then, maybe some aren't, maybe they are pushed by circumstances to take action that is inconceivable to the rest of us.

I don't know what the answer is, but I think we are right to expect, to want, to demand a different outcome. It's so easy to turn our backs, to say not my problem. We need to nurture and care for our children, lead them by example. I can't help but shudder at the circumstances that would lead a child to commit such horrific acts. But write them off completely? Leave them to flounder and become even more violent in an institution? I don't think that's the anser.

Rebecca Burgess said...

Lisa,

Wonderful post. It is frightening to think that children, particularly those subjected to a lifetime of intense abuse and torture by those charged with their protection, spend all their life in prison for crimes probably committed under extreme duress.

As to the obligation overload. For me it's a matter of being aware of our societal needs and then getting involved in the select few that speak most to your heart. What needs are the ones keeping you up at night? These are the ones you should get personally involved with. Truly, it would be overwhelming for any one person to take on all the world's problems, but if we all focus our energy on the one or two most important to us, I think we'd find our individual diversity would cover the gamut of social ills.

It sounds like you've found yours. Thank you for making us all more aware.

Carleen Brice said...

You have one of the greatest hearts I've ever met.

Patti said...

i think this needs to examined case by case. i haven't seen the special, but even if i did i think i would be suspicious of their info...i would research it myself to see what was what.

my heart is with children and it pains me to see them injured in any way, so i am going to start reading about this. the numbers, if true, are staggering.

can you tell i am a skeptic at heart? but coming from you i tend to believe more than question. good post, lisa.

Lisa said...

Steve, To your point, this probably is an issue that will eventually require federal intervention and I agree with you the LWOP for juveniles constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. When you look at the map of the US and see what a huge disparity there is from state to state in terms of how many have mandatory LWOP sentencing for juveniles and how many don't, this issue, which is political in nature, but should be moral, will not likely sort itself out, except at the federal level. This is one of those issues that makes life in a republic interesting.

Kristen, it's a difficult question. In cases that have been more publicized, I'm sure that our disgust at the crimes (there was the 13 year old boy some years ago who followed a six year old into the woods and killed him -- and there is the question of the Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine shooters -- had they lived) we are less inclined to be merciful when we find the crimes particularly cruel and heinous. But mandatory sentencing laws take any discretion away from a judge and it seals the fates of the convicted for the next 70-80 years.

Rebecca, for a long time I've felt like I wanted to be able to make some kind of a difference but all of the problems deserving of attention were overwhelming. I'd write as many checks as I could and hope for the best. You're right, I truly feel like this issue has called me, that there is a fundamental moral wrong about this. I believe that there are children that we've thrown away, who might have been redeemed, but with each day in adult prison, locked away with predators and adult criminals, pieces of whatever humanity they might have had are disappearing. In Colorado the law was changed to banish LWOP for juveniles. Not making the change retroactive was certainly a compromise because on the surface it doesn't make sense that we won't use that sentence from now on, but we won't revisit those already serving time. Yes, I guess I've found the cause that speaks to me and I'll try to do what I can.

Carleen, Your last post and the photo of you with the children you are so dedicated to spending time with is, I really believe, one of the reasons there aren't more of these juveniles behind bars now. I'm merely talking about a problem, but you're out there doing something, my friend and I admire action over all.

Patti, Without a doubt, the Frontline special has a lot of flaws. I believe the filmmakers spent far too much time focusing on a couple of family members. There is a lot of footage of the sister of one of the kids who murdered someone. There is also footage of one mother of a murdered teenager who, understandably is very angry and will never forgive her son's killer. The individual stories of the cases in many ways (to me) aren't relevant to mandatory sentencing laws. The point is that when a judge has no other choice but to sentence juveniles to life without the possibility of parole, the circumstances of the murder, or in several cases, a finding of felony murder (the person didn't kill anyone but was there) are moot and can't be taken into consideration. A life sentence or an extremely long sentence is always an option, and just because an offender has the POSSIBILITY of applying for parole doesn't mean it will ever happen (think Manson killers -- several of them have annual parole hearings). Even now, a juvenile found guilty of murder in Colorado does not have the possibility of parole until he or she has served 40 years. That's a very long time. In your state, despite the hard line on adult crime, there is a much more progressive stance toward rehabilitation of juvenile offenders. Criminy, if Texans believe juvenile murderers are worthy of a second chance, that really says something to me. Please do research it, but go beyond the Frontline special, as I did. There's always much more to these stories than what fits in the videos. Thank you for being skeptical -- we all should be.

Charles Gramlich said...

I haven't seen that episode of Frontline but I will try to find out more about it.

Each case would have to be judged independently, of course. I imagine some of these teenagers deserved the penalty. Others may well have had extenuating circumstances that would suggest they could be rehabilitated. The punishments seem awfully high in many cases when adult criminals can get much less time for horrid acts. the one fact I question is that tehre are only 46 kids serving life sentences in the rest of the world. I'd like to know exactly what countries they are talking about to get that number, because I suspect there are plenty of places where young offenders are not treated very nicely.

Sustenance Scout said...

WOW, Lisa, I'm learning a ton here just reading your post and these comments. So glad you're getting responses to your letters; I'm here to help whenever you need it. As a mom and aunt, I've talked to lots of other parents about how young men are targeted with suspicion and how circumstances in schools and social scenes (and yes violence portrayed in the media and so widely accepted, desensitizing so many) seem to set up young men to fail. Add to all that an unstable family life and so many horrid forms of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, and it's no wonder so many young men are so deeply troubled and commit such heinous crimes. Changing laws to give them hope and protection will help those destined for prison; changing attitudes and fortifying the social services programs that are so pathetic and lacking in this country will help prevent such crimes from happening in the first place. Volunteers like Carleen who work with young children make a difference, activists like you and Mary Ellen Johnson make a difference, organizations like The Pendulum Foundation help direct us all in a cohesive effort to effect real change. Thanks so much for writing about this! K.

Lisa said...

Charles, If you really wanted to see it, you can go to it on the link in the post and watch it for free. Your feeling that each case would need to be evaluated for the circumstances indicates that you would not favor a mandatory LWOP sentence. For example, in the Jacob Ind case back in the early 90's, the jurors (and appropriately so) weren't informed of, nor were they aware that a verdict of guilty of murder automatically meant LWOP. They listened to the evidence and based on the law, Jacob Ind was found guilty of two counts of murder. But many of the jurors also believed the testimony about abuse and had they known that the guilty verdict meant automatic LWOP, they've said they might not have been able to come to that verdict. The judge in the case was clearly sympathetic and although she did not want to do it, had to render the mandatory sentence. Louisiana has one of the highest levels of juveniles sentenced to LWOP of all the states. I can find out about the number of juveniles sentenced to LWOP worldwide, which was actually 12, (46 are in Colorado alone). Of the 12, 8 of them are in Israel, so I can only assume they are young terrorists. There is a Human Rights organization that tracks these things, but I'll find out where the number comes from and where the juveniles serving LWOP in other countries are held. Great question.

Lisa said...

Karen, our comments just crossed paths! I believe our social support systems need a great deal of help all along the way. There is a great deal of detail on both the Pendulum and the Frontline sites about many more of the specific cases of these young offenders. Frontline chose to profile five of them and they are not necessarily representative of the 46. I believe that the young men who were interviewed -- who all came from upper middle class environments (with the exception of Nathan, but he was living in an apartment in Highlands Ranch) -- were chosen primarily because they are very articulate. There are other kids who come from all kinds of circumstances and situations who would probably only have seemed frightening if put on camera and many don't have any comprehension of the legal system they're now. One of those serving LWOP is there basically as a result of a hit and run accident, one of them is severely mentally ill and had spent his entire life prior to the crime in foster care, one of them who is in SuperMax was involved in a shooting at 15 and the two others involved testified against him in exchange for having charges dropped -- there is a laundry list of stories and again, we need to think about and care about how these kids ended up doing what they did and we need to really ask ourselves if we want to be the kind of society who believes it's OK to throw juvenile offenders in prison for life and throw away the key, when even the most uncivilized third world countries don't do it. What does it say about us? You bring a lot of great insights to us through your blog Karen and I'm sure that you recognize that many of the issues you mentioned in your comment play into these worst case scenarios. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

Lisa said...

This is probably a separate post, but I think the reality of what happens as soon as these teenagers go into maximum security adult prisons is germane to this discussion. What I've learned and I believe to be true is that immediately on being introduced into the general prison population, boys in particular are challenged. Only if they fight back, with the intent to seriously injure or kill their attackers are they able to avoid being raped and becoming a "punk". Prison culture is organized around gangs, which are typically divided along racial lines. So, with a sentence of LWOP and mere survival in the prison system the most basic initial need, by default, a prisoner has to violate the rules by becoming violent or arming themselves or endure the alternative. The punishment is typically "administrative segregation", otherwise known as solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, with possibly one hour of solitary recreation (not always). "Ad-seg" can be one of the several state prisons, but it can also mean a transfer to the Colorado State Penitentiary, our notorious SuperMax. All of the 5 profiled on Frontline have spent years in "Ad-seg" -- four out of five have spent it in SuperMax. How ever is it possible that a person could retain sanity or humanity under those conditions? No human contact. SuperMax has always been referred to as the facility for "the worst of the worst". I'm afraid I'm beginning to believe that juveniles appear to see much harsher treatment than their adult counterparts.

iyan and egusi soup: said...

hi lisa,

the need for juvenile justice reform is a critical issue in this country, and one that most of us continue to ignore. a great deal of my law school research centered on juvenile justice issues, and while in new orleans, i worked as an advocate of families with incarcerated children. when we are discussing children (really, when we're discussing any human being), i think we must be willing to frame issues in less simplistic, reactionary terms (e.g. 'guilt or innocence'; 'do the crime, do the time').

a child's likelihood of committing crime rarely depends on some innate "good or evil" (as if any of us are fully one or the other) but more on the adequacy of the educational system, mental health care system, and the familial and community environments in which that child finds himself.

despite numerous studies (yes, i've read them) that show that rehabilitative alternatives to incarceration are often much more effective in curbing recidivism among youth than are harsh sentencing practices (e.g. life without parole, death penalty), courts for the most part, remain unwilling to utilize non-lock-up forms of punishment.

there's so much more here...including evidence of disparate sentencing practices when comparing black and white youths accused and convicted of similar crimes.

lisa, i think it's commendable you've chosen to shed more light on this. thank you.

Lisa said...

Olufunke, I am so glad that you stopped by. Unlike me, you have dedicated much time to studying juvenile justice and working as a lawyer within this field and you actually know what you're talking about! I am so impressed and humbled that you worked this issue in New Orleans. According to the US map that I've linked to, Louisiana is one of the four states in the country with over 300 juveniles sentenced to mandatory LWOP. Is it really all about politics? Have the laws pertaining to juvenile justice become this harsh in reaction to the public's fear of youth violence as it's depicted in the media? Are there D.A.s who are in favor of juvenile justice reform, or do they all tend to go for the harshest sentencing possible? Why is the public reaction to juveniles sentenced to LWOP indifference or a reluctance to consider the effectiveness of punishment versus rehabilitation? Do people just not care because the offenders are "them" and not "us"? Maybe you can email me if you don't want to take on all of my impossible questions. I'm just really trying to figure out why it is that although statistics and facts bear out a clear case for reform, the culture does not seem interested. Thank you so much for commenting and thank you for all of the work you've done in this field. I read about your previous work on your blog and was awed by your good work.

iyan and egusi soup: said...

hi lisa,

thank you for the kind words, but really you give me far too much credit. i worked not as a lawyer, but as an advocate: the philosophy of my organization was that parents, not lawyers, are ultimately children's most powerful advocates. so, we taught families how to advocate on behalf of their own children, and then work within their communities to educate other families on the workings of the legal system; we found that sentencing could be influenced by how educated and empowered parents were on the issues (e.g. just by showing their faces, relatives could help convince a judge to consider an alternative to lock-up). so really, the families had the most painful and difficult end of the work.

also...lawmakers and other stakeholders were much more conscious of how they addressed the life-chances of "those criminals" when families were present at decision-making meetings. they saw firsthand that their statistics were in actuality, children with families who loved and wanted better for them. sadly, the assumption is that parents of incarcerated youth just don't care--not true in most of the cases.

yes, louisiana's record of juvenile injustice is troubling. significant progress was made (for instance, through grassroots organizing efforts, a lock-up facility where children had been injured and killed by guards was shut down) pre-hurricane katrina, but only time will tell where matters are heading.

i think all of the factors you've listed have some effect on why things are as they are: indifference, otherness, politics (reluctance by officials seeking reelection to be "soft" on crime as someone mentioned earler; and since most citizens aren't aware of the facts and studies, it's quite easy to perpetuate certain fear tactics).

thank you for letting me share, lisa. and for reminding all of us that we have a part.

Lisa said...

Olufunke, thank you for coming back and addressing my questions and you deserve all the credit I can give and more. Not many people are willing to take a law degree from Harvard and do what you did. I suspect that there are not many advocacy programs around the country, like the one you were involved with. What does encourage me is your comment about grassroots efforts really leading to change. It sounds like you were able to do that in Louisiana, just as Pendulum was able to help change the juvenile sentencing laws here in 2006. The change here was a compromise, but it was a change in the right direction. You give me hope that maybe one person at a time, we really can make a difference.

Lisa said...

Charles had asked a question about the number of children serving LWOP in other countries. Mary Ellen Johnson from Pendulum referred me from this 2005 report from Human Rights Watch http://hrw.org/reports/2005/us1005/9.htm#_Toc114638431

The information is difficult to get, but here is an excerpt from 2 years ago:

The domestic laws and practice of governments worldwide provide a clear measure of global adherence to the CRC’s prohibition of the life without parole sentences for children.311 Out of 154 other countries for which Human Rights Watch was able to obtain data,312 only three currently have people serving life without parole for crimes they committed as children, and none of those four have more than a handful of cases. The paucity of countries that sentence children to life without parole is not due to their use of even harsher punishments (such as the death penalty) for child offenders. In fact, between 1990 and 2004, only eight countries (including the United States) have reportedly imposed the juvenile death penalty.313

For example, not one of the original fifteen member states of the European Union allows children to be sentenced to life without parole.314 On the African continent, thirty-one countries prohibit life without parole for children in their penal laws.315 Six other African countries have decided that the sentence cannot be imposed on child offenders under sixteen.316 In three additional African countries, the sentence is technically possible, but it is not used in practice.317

Kenya and Tanzania are the only two countries in Africa where representatives of inter-governmental or non-governmental organizations reported that the sentence is still being imposed on offenders below the age of eighteen. But even these countries are working on improving their practices. Kenya is currently undergoing an extensive constitutional and law reform process, which may eliminate the sentence. In Tanzania, apparently the only recent life without parole sentence for a youth is that of a seventeen-year-old convicted in a highly controversial rape case. His conviction is currently under appeal.318

Throughout the world, about fourteen countries have laws allowing for a life sentence to be imposed on youth offenders, although it is not clear in all of these cases whether life means life, or whether parole remains a possibility.319 Outside of the United States, we have found only about a dozen child offenders serving such a sentence in three countries. South Africa reportedly has four child offenders serving life without parole sentences,320 Tanzania has one,321 and to our knowledge, there are between four and seven youth offenders sentenced to life in prison in Israel as of 2005.322 In addition, youth can technically receive the sentence under the penal laws of Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Brunei, Dominica, Kenya, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, and Sri Lanka, but it seems that the sentence is rarely if ever used. Finally, in Burkina Faso and Cuba, the sentence seems to be technically possible for individuals above the age of sixteen, but we know of no instances in which it has been used.323 Curiously, thirteen of the countries that allow for the sentence can trace their historical ties to the United Kingdom and the English common law tradition of sentencing “for the duration of Her Majesty’s pleasure.” Yet the source of this tradition, the United Kingdom, abolished the possibility of a life without parole sentence for youth offenders after a seminal decision by the European Court of Human Rights in 1996.324

Global consensus against the sentence has become increasingly cohesive and firm. In April 2004, the Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution “urg[ing] States to ensure that under their legislation and practice neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without the possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below eighteen years of age.”325

The international rejection of life without parole (as well as the death penalty) for child offenders is so overwhelming that it may have attained the status of customary international law. Once a rule of customary international law is established, that rule becomes binding even on states that have not formally agreed to it.326 Under domestic U.S. law, customary international law is binding on the government of the United States.327

Establishing a rule of customary international law requires two elements: first, widespread and consistent governmental practice and second, a sense of legal obligation, or opinio juris accompanying the practice.328 The International Court of Justice has said that “a very widespread and representative participation in [a] convention might suffice of itself” to evidence the attainment of customary international law, provided it included participation from “States whose interests were specially affected.”329 As the previous discussion of widespread adherence to the CRC and consistent worldwide refusal to impose the sentence on children indicates, both of these elements exist.330 The United States, which historically was a leader in promoting juvenile justice reforms, now finds itself far behind the practice of the rest of the world.

The global rarity of life without parole for youth offenders may also be due to the ineffectiveness of the sentence. Harsh juvenile sentences such as life without parole do not appear to offer a deterrent effect to lower the prevalence of homicide offenses among youth. The prevalence of juvenile homicide in a particular country is due to a myriad of factors that are difficult to identify and even more challenging to compare across international boundaries. It is nevertheless the case that the harsh penalties for youth offenders in the U.S., such as life without parole sentences, have not given the United States significantly lower rates of youth crime. During 1999, 10 percent of all homicide offenders in the United States were below the age of eighteen, which means the United States had the third highest percentage in a comparison with twenty-eight European countries in 1999.331 Ten years earlier, in 1989, children made up 11 percent of all homicide offenders in the United States. If harsh sentencing were the answer to deterring serious and violent juvenile crime, the United States should be among the countries with the lowest percentages of youth murderers, rather than having seen its total number of youth homicide offenders drop by just 1 percent.

Jennifer said...

Lots of information here. Thank you for writing about this, Lisa. I was just talking with a friend about how the information age can often overwhelm us with the needs of our fellow humans. It's important to keep a good perspective of what you CAN do, but it's also important to disallow the flood of information to paralyze or discourage. I truly believe that one person CAN make a difference, and we are more likely to make an impact when we feel passionately about something.

There are 13 juveniles serving LWOP in my tiny state alone. That's one more than the number you quoted for the rest of the world.

I have serious issues with "permanent" punishments (death penalty, mandatory LWOP sentences). In fact, I object to mandatory sentencing in general--I support sentencing guidelines, but I believe a judge (or jury) should be given the power to approach each offender as an individual, considering background and all special circumstances, of which age is surely one.

And even after sentencing, individuals change. (Yes, I'm skeptical of jailhouse conversions myself, but I refuse to ignore their possibility.)

I don't believe that anyone gets true justice here--neither the victim nor the offender. The system, and those who run it, are just too imperfect. But surely there's a better way?

Lisa said...

Jennifer, thanks so much for weighing in. And I agree with you completely. Mandatory sentencing just doesn't make sense to me either. I guess the thing I don't understand is why people are convinced that justice can't be dispensed without tying the hands of the judges and juries. And wow. Can you imagine being held accountable for anything you did as a teenager? I'm not the same person I was at 20 or 30 or 40 or even a year ago. Is anyone?

Jennifer said...

Perhaps this is cynicism speaking, but I think there are some people who don't seem to change, who hold rigidly to a set of beliefs or values and will not challenge them or let them be challenged, and so they are in a kind of stasis. Maybe these are the same people who advocate mandatory sentencing and permanent punishments for child offenders.

John Terry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Terry said...


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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.


Virginia Woolf