Sentencing Kids to Life Without Parole: Costly, Cruel & Foolish

Yesterday's riff on the cruel and misguided policy of prosecuting and punishing children as if they were adults -- inspired by news that 14-year-old Kearie Brown will be tried in adult court -- shares the sentiment expressed today in a Los Angeles Times editorial that calls for a ban on "life without parole" sentences for juveniles:

Children, even really bad ones, are different from adults. That basic truth is the foundation of our juvenile justice system, which seeks to protect society from violent youth while recognizing that they haven't yet developed an adult's brainpower, resistance to peer pressure, judgment and thus moral capacity. ...

[L]ocking up children as young as 14 for life without even the most remote possibility of parole ... [is] costly, cruel and foolish.

Judges who impose harsh sentences often claim that severe punishment deters others who might be tempted to commit a similar crime. That rationale, dubious when applied to adults, is wholly misguided when applied to children who haven't developed the ability to understand or envision the lifelong consequences of impulsive action. As the editorial reminds us: [more ...]

Knowing they will live and die in prison, people who acted in the rashness of youth have no hope of returning to society, and therefore no reason to learn, or grow, or mature, or reform. But surely their example will dissuade other youth from crime? Nonsense. Kids who can't imagine next year can't imagine life in prison and can't be expected to make decisions based on something as obscure to them as parole.

California should stop treating kids as if they were adults. Kids who are now serving terms of life without parole should be given a chance to prove they've grown up and are capable of living productive lives.

Unfortunately, the California legislature has shown little interest in adopting a sensible approach to punishment of either adults or juveniles. The editorial explains the loopy logic that might derail even a stopgap reform -- a proposal to allow judges to reduce "life without parole" sentences for juveniles to "25 to life":

Even this modest, sane and humane reform could fail in Sacramento on the specious assertion that the state would be unable to bear the cost of an occasional additional parole hearing; we will instead continue to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for a lifetime of imprisonment because of the actions of a teenager. No wonder California can't manage a prison system or balance a budget.

Juvenile detention facilities create jobs, after all. Maybe California should lock up all its kids to assure full employment for the state's adults.

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    Personally (5.00 / 0) (#2)
    by Bemused on Fri May 01, 2009 at 08:02:36 AM EST
      I would abolish the death penalty and have life without parole reserved only for the worst of the worst among adults. There are some people who have committed acts which can justifiably be considered forfeiture of any right to even the hope for eventual freedom. I don't think any children are among them and I think far fewer adults than receive such sentences.

    While I believe in the case noted yesterday (none / 0) (#1)
    by coast on Fri May 01, 2009 at 07:44:45 AM EST
    that the young lady deserves a harsh sentence, sentencing children and young teens to jail for life without parol is too harsh.  In yesterday's case, a sentence of approx 7 yrs, if she were to get out at age 21, does not seem to me to reflect the severity and callousness of the crime committed.

    Locking up a juveniles for life (none / 0) (#3)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri May 01, 2009 at 10:08:16 AM EST
    does, in the abstract, sound bad.

    Why don't we look at some actual cases.

    Joe Cheadle: "Hello my name's Joe Cheadle, I'm 31 years old. I've been in prison since I was 17 years old.

    Cheadle is what's known as a juvenile lifer. That means he was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he committed before he was 18.

    It was an appalling crime: he used a wooden table leg to beat to death a 103-year old man. It happened during a burglary in 1993.

    Cheadle was given life, not LWP.
    NEW CASTLE, Pa. - Good student. Starting quarterback. Aspiring hunter. By most accounts, 11-year-old Jordan Brown was a typical boy in his rural Pennsylvania community, albeit raised mostly by his father after his mother gave him up.

    So it baffles Jordan's friends and neighbors that he is accused of taking a 20-gauge youth shotgun he got from his father for Christmas and fatally shooting his father's pregnant fiancee, the woman who tried hardest to be a mother to him.

    "There were no red lights, there were no indications that we should have done something differently," said Timothy McNamee, superintendent of the Mohawk Area School District.

    Authorities say the Feb. 20 killing of 26-year-old Kenzie Marie Houk in Wampum, a small community about 50 miles north of Pittsburgh, was premeditated. Police say Jordan threw the spent shell casing in the woods, got on the bus, and went to school.

    Jordan has been charged as an adult with double homicide and is housed at a juvenile-detention center in Erie. If he is convicted as an adult, he faces life in prison. If his case gets moved to a juvenile court, he would probably spend the next 10 years in a secure juvenile facility.

    Although Jessie Rankins isn't a household name, his crime was among the most notorious murders in Chicago history. Just a scrawny boy in 1994, he and a friend abducted 5-year-old Eric Morse and dropped him to his death out a 14th-floor window at a public housing high-rise. Eric had refused to steal candy for them, prosecutors said. Rankins, then 10, and co-defendant Tykeece Johnson, 11, became the state's youngest inmates.
    Kipland Philip "Kip" Kinkel (born August 30, 1982) is an American who perpetrated the murders of his parents on May 20, 1998, and a school shooting at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon on May 21, 1998, that left two students dead and 25 others wounded.[1] He is currently serving an 111-year sentence, without the possibility of parole.
    18 y/o's are adults and can get LWP for really heinous murders in about 19 states, how about a 17 year 11 month old?

    TL often says something like "bad crime cases make bad law" implying that we look at the horrific cases and make bad broad laws that sweep people into them who don't belong there.

    Well, this could easily be the same thing, only opposite. By focusing on the cases that elicit maximum outrage at juveniles getting LWP, imo, we could do exactly what TL consistently decries, make bad law because of bad cases, only in reverse.

    While LWP should only be reserved for the worst of the worst if a young murderer deserves it and society would be protected because of it, I don't think a law enacting blanket restrictions against it is good law.

    I'm not suggesting (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by Bemused on Fri May 01, 2009 at 10:28:05 AM EST
     that no one who commits a truly heinous crime prior to age 18 should ever ultimately spend a life behind bars. I just don't think that the decision should be made at an initial disposition.

      Establishing a system for periodic review of the person's progress and allowing for release if certain conditions are met is what we do with adult life with mercy. They don't all get released just because of the mercy recommendation.

      I'd like to see a form of that process for juvenile murderers but with a greater focus on providing the young offender with the tools he needs to progress and change both because I believe there is more chance a young person will do so than an older one and because I do think we should take into account to a greater degree the reality that young people are more impulsive and iimmature emotionally.



    Well said. (none / 0) (#5)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri May 01, 2009 at 11:40:40 AM EST
    Agree, well said (none / 0) (#13)
    by jondee on Sat Jan 23, 2010 at 02:31:46 PM EST
    with the caveat that until we make a more broad-based commitment to undermining the dog-eat-dog paradigms that have been to large extent  institutionalized in this country -- to the point that they're almost folklore and mythology -- the American pressure cooker is going to keep cranking out these under-loved, over-medicated "dangerous loner" types at a rate unheard of anywhere else in the developed world.

    I wonder if there is some statistical (none / 0) (#6)
    by hairspray on Fri May 01, 2009 at 01:47:04 PM EST
    evidence of repeat offenses from the under age kids who commit heinous crimes and are released at 21-23 years.  Many states try these kids as juveniles and should have some information about what happens to them after they are released.

    that's the point (none / 0) (#8)
    by diogenes on Sat May 02, 2009 at 09:02:02 PM EST
    Even antisocial folk tone down criminal behavior in their 40's.  But releasing someone arbitrarily at 21 is a stretch.
    Also the sealing of juvenile records is a problem is the person isn't charged as an adult.  I'm in a small town where we know everyone, so if a 21 year old sexually offends a 6 year old we remember that he did the same thing to two other kids when he was 14 and can adjust attempts at treatment accordingly.  Otherwise no one would ever know of that history with sealed juvie records.

    it's been asserted, (none / 0) (#7)
    by cpinva on Fri May 01, 2009 at 02:16:43 PM EST
    throughout history, that the death penalty deters others from committing crime. obviously, that isn't quite true, because people commit crimes on a daily basis.

    with that as precedence, what makes any reasonable (by reasonable, i mean someone not running for public office) person think that LWP is going to have a greater deterrent effect than the death penalty?

    are some people born amoral sociopaths? probably so, but i'll leave that to the experts. i'm inclined to believe most people aren't. we almost all are, however, subject to the stupidity of youth. if every kid was put in jail, for every stupid act they committed, we just wouldn't have enough cells to accomodate them all.

    there are some acts so absolutely heinous,at whatever age, that the perpetrator should be locked up for life, with no chance of ever getting out. i suggest those acts are few and far between, and children should be granted the most leniency, since they're not fully formed adults, physically or psychologically.

    "born sociopaths" (none / 0) (#9)
    by diogenes on Sat May 02, 2009 at 09:11:39 PM EST
    Personality is about fifty percent inherited.  However, if someone who is 14 or 15 really has no conscience (i.e. coolly kills people, is sadistically cruel to animals, is a sadistic rapist, etc) then the likelihood of developing one is low.  The kid might learn to not do criminal things to stay out of prison, and programs such as Commitment to Change for antisocial people push them to not do stupid things that mess up their lives.
    That said, maybe some liberal types should take in such juvies as boarders when they're 21 and released from detention centers and give them a stable home, thus doing society a great favor.

    Sociopathology and cruelty (none / 0) (#11)
    by jondee on Sat Jan 23, 2010 at 01:52:10 PM EST
    yes, we have clear cut rules in our society regarding who can be sociopathic and cruel: the accepted avenues are the stockyards and Blackwater; with a doctorate in sociopathology, and a little more refinement, you might wind up managing a hedge fund or sitting on the board of the Cato Institute.

    The key in this country is to make your sociopathology work for you by operating through the accepted channels, instead of going off all half-cocked and blowing (non-sanctioned) little old ladies heads off. That and a good lobbying firm or two working for you.


    "Liberal types" (none / 0) (#12)
    by jondee on Sat Jan 23, 2010 at 02:04:50 PM EST
    I'd venture to guess that there are already "liberal types" who do just that; if for no other reason than to save some of these kids from the semi-humanoid lynch mob that "conservative types" always seem on the verge of degenerating back into.