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Violent juveniles serving life without parole: When victims of crime disagree

Aug 07, 2009

By Lisa Rea

I would like to draw your attention to a very controversial piece of US federal legislation, HR 2289, which seeks to address the problem of juvenile lifers who are serving life sentences.

The expressed purpose of the bill is to "establish a meaningful opportunity for parole or similar release of juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison."

Two victims of crime who have been active on many issues related to criminal justice reform testified at this hearing in June before the Senate Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. The witnesses included Linda White, member of Murder Victims for Reconciliation, from Texas and Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, co-founder of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, from Illinois. Both victims were at one time working with my organization, The Justice and Reconciliation Project, a national nonprofit that organized and educated victims of crime about restorative justice. Until the closing of the JRP this year, Ms. Jenkins served on the board of directors of JRP. Both victims support restorative justice. Yet, on this subject they do not see eye to eye.

As you listen to the hearing, or read the testimony, you will hear restorative justice mentioned. The issue of how to treat juveniles offenders who have received life sentences without the possibility of parole is a very tough issue. This bill, HR 2289, called the Juvenile Justice Accountability and Improvement Act of 2009, is looking at how we sentence violent juveniles to life in prison and opening the debate about future treatment and sentencing of such violent juveniles. My hope is to stimulate discussion on this subject especially in the light of restorative justice. I hope that with this national discussion it might be possible to come to a place of common ground especially among the crime victims' community.

I am aware that Ms. Jenkins' concerns include the issue of retroactivity, that is how to apply this type of legislation to cases where such juveniles have already received a life without parole sentence. This legislation as it is now written would re-open cases like Jennifer's. Jennifer's sister, Nancy Bishop Langert, her husband, Richard, and their un-born child were victims of a vicious murder in 1990. The life sentence that applies to the offender in her family's case would be in question. While the offender received a life without parole sentence the chance of the offender getting out of prison some day has victims like Jennifer reeling. Part of Jennifer's argument is that bringing family members before a parole board every 2-3 years for the rest of their lives, given that family members often do oppose release of violent offenders after the murder of a loved one, has a devastating effect on the victim's family for life.

Linda White, also a victim of violent crime whose daughter Cathy was brutally murdered in 1986, sees it differently. Ms. White believes we should treat juvenile offenders differently, especially since the acts of violence committed by these juveniles were committed often at an early age. White also argues that through rehabilitation type programs change in an offender is possible. She believes that at the very least these juvenile offenders should have the chance for parole. White met the man who killed her daughter in a mediated dialogue set up through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and its Victim's Services Division. This dialogue had a deep effect on Ms. White and her view of this offender.   

I will not go into every argument posed by each victim as they testified. You can view that for yourself. But it is clear to me that victims should always have the right to be at the table when laws are made that will affect them. In a system based on restorative justice that would be the ideal. That after all is what restorative justice is all about. I call it victims-driven restorative justice for without the victim in the center all good reforms of the criminal justice are not restorative justice. Should the views of victims have more weight than others ? I think the views of victims should carry weight, yes. How much weight they should wield is the question. Increasingly, though, crime victims are disagreeing publicly on many issues. Some of those issues include the death penalty, and whether it should be abolished, or whether we need additional laws that require offenders serve more and more prison time (or even be eligible for the death penalty), or this issue considering whether juveniles should be given life without parole sentences.  

Brokering a position on legislation, no matter how complicated, is something that happens all the time. I know because I've written legislation and have lobbied for and against legislation related to many subjects including issues related to criminal justice. This is not new. Can common ground be built? I think it can even on this highly explosive subject. But it will take some kind of give and take on both sides.  One thing is essential, however. There must be mutual respect between the two (or more) sides as the negotiations on the legislation takes place. Certainly this legislation will not stand or fall because of the views of crime victims; however, saying that it is also my experience that their views do matter and lawmakers do listen.  Public opinion is also affected by the stories they hear from crime victims.

Isn't that what restorative justice is all about? A dialogue must begin. What are we trying to fix here? I would say we are trying to fix a terribly broken criminal justice system that does not work for the victim (or their families), the offender (and yes, their families) and the communities torn by crime. How do we move past this to a place of safer communities that begin to restore or heal victims as much as possible as well as the communities also in need of restoration?  We sit down and have that dialogue.

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elizabeth T. briggs
elizabeth T. briggs says:
Aug 07, 2009 06:58 PM

We have befriended David since he was 13 years old. He is now in prison ( for life) for killing his girlfriend and hiding her body. After eighteen years he is a changed man in every way. Truly repentant,God-fearing, hard-working at his prison job, a peacemaker among the inmates and has some respect from his supervisors. He calls the young twenty-somethings "these bad children" and tries to help them grow-up. I think I'll ask him what he thinks about life without parole for teens.

Lisa Rea
Lisa Rea says:
Aug 07, 2009 09:04 PM

Thanks, Elizabeth. I appreciate your comments. Everyone has a story to tell. Thanks for writing in from North Carolina. <br /> <br />Lisa

muriel schnierow
muriel schnierow says:
Jul 20, 2010 01:26 PM

the reason Herve Cleckley wrote &quot;the Mask of Sanity&quot; is that psychopaths are expert at looking like they have changed when they want to. In prison they are often model prisoners, very often &quot;find God&quot; and hopefully it is true. Just as often it isnt true. Check out the Runge case in Illinois.at 17 he kidnapped ,raped and tortured a 14 year old girl.She escaped and had so many bite marks the Er couldnt count them .What then? Runge <br />fooled and charmed everyone, was paroled , and killed 5 women .He was a serial killer. And worst of all there is a test-the &quot;Hare Psychopathic Checklist R) which has to be administered carefully. I am asking for proper sentencing, proper release, and education .We cant find something if we dont know it is there. <br />Muriel Schnierow

Bill Pelke
Bill Pelke says:
Aug 07, 2009 07:00 PM

I agree wholeheartedly in Lisa's statement &quot;without the victim in the center all good reforms of the criminal justice are not restorative justice.&quot; <br /> <br />The goal is restoration. If we tell our offender that they should never be released from prison, they I don't think we want that person to be restored. <br /> <br />If we eliminate life without parole for crimes committed by a juvenile do not mean they will get out of prison some day, but allows the possibility that if they are rehabilitated that someday they might be free. <br /> <br />My grandmother was brutally killed by a fifteen-year-old girl and has been in prison now for almost 25 years. She has changed for the better and wants to use the rest of her life to make a difference. She has obtained a GED and a college correspondence degree while in prison. <br /> <br />She is not the same person who committed this terrible crime 25 years ago. She deserves the chance to be free some day. <br /> <br />Juveniles can't drink, vote or buy cigarettes because their minds are still developing. They should not be sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed during this stage of their life. <br /> <br />It does not mean that some day they should automatically get out of prison. If they don't change, reform or rehabilitate then they should remain in prison so society can be safe from them, but give them a choice. Give them a chance to make that derision. <br /> <br />Peace, <br /> <br />Bill Pelke <br />

Rodney Shaw
Rodney Shaw says:
Aug 07, 2009 07:36 PM

LWOP sentencing makes no sense. Squeaky Fromme of Charles Manson/Gerald Ford Assassination attempt is being paroled in mid-August after receiving a life sentence for trying to kill the president. In the Federal system they were required to consider her for parole after 30 years even though she had been eligible for quite a few years and had refused to request it. So why does the justice system feel that juvenile offenders are less deserving of an opportunity to get out of jail when in similar circumstances? Fromme was an adult at the time of her crime while juveniles are not and are still capable of being rerouted on the path of life.

Avo Üprus
Avo Üprus says:
Aug 08, 2009 01:16 PM

Lifetime imprisonment is not a punishment. it is revenge and only. punishment must have a rehabilitative nature. rehabilitation is bounded to future. no rehabilitation without future. punishment must have a beginning and end. lifetime is unlimited time and unlimited sentence: it is unlimited pain, degradation and humiliation of human beings. <br />if we speak about young offenders it is absolutely nonunderstandible to keep them without parole in prisons. in my country the limit for young offenders (under 18) is eight years. <br />of cource most of people think what it is not enough for what they did: I understand them. they believe what punishment fix something in society, repair justice or victims feelings. sorry, but I dont believe this. I believe trust, respect, forgiveness and healing. Of cource, You may ask, is it smart to trust somebody who killed and raped, how to respect this kind person... I believe what we must keep our respect and trust to humanity what is hidden in every human being. It is necessary for surviving as humankind.

Jennifer Bishop Jenkins
Jennifer Bishop Jenkins says:
Aug 10, 2009 02:56 PM

Thanks to Lisa for posting on this important topic and to all who are chiming in on this important public policy debate. The tone of this article was most helpful, and should be the tone that dominates the national discussion. Sadly it is not. <br /> <br />First, I want to correct what might be a misimpression. I SUPPORT reforming juvenile life sentences. Horrific as the crime was in my family's case, I recognize the broad spectrum of these crimes and the associated punishments. There are many (really, most) that even the offender advocates will agree should never get out. But there are also quite a few cases where the offenders have been clearly over-sentenced, as is actually true of course throughout the criminal justice system. <br /> <br />Lisa is right, we must come TOGETHER for this dialogue. The problem now is that the victims families of these crimes, surely KEY stakeholders in this discussion, are being entirely left out by the offender advocates. <br /> <br />And much of their rhetoric is falsely propagandistic, hurtful, and insensitive. <br /> <br />And their proposals are not flexible and taking into account what is best for victims. Often what they propose is simply torturous to victims while not at all solving the problem of mandatory sentencing of juvenile offenders to the harshest of adult offenses. <br /> <br />This is NOT restorative justice. <br /> <br />So I want to make sure everyone reading this does not confuse my position as adversarial, but foundationally restorative in all this. You can read more at www.jlwopvictims.org about the various victim concerns, but you will also read there our support for dialogue, reform, and for solutions that will not be doing even more harm to the victims families left behind. <br /> <br />As with any complicated issue, the devil is in the details. <br /> <br />I once again join my fellow victims families that I have found on my own, with no help from the well-funded offender advocates, in a call for the very conversation Lisa is calling for here. <br /> <br />Jennifer Bishop Jenkins <br />Murder Victims Families for Human Rights <br />National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers (NOVJL) www.jlwopvictims.org <br /> <br />

Lisa Rea
Lisa Rea says:
Aug 11, 2009 02:04 AM

Hello, Jennifer. Good to see your comments. I think all those in the restorative justice movement want to see crime victims involved in any dialogue about systemic reform of the criminal justice system. <br />&nbsp; <br />I think much of this change we are talking of here happens legislatively (politically). Often those talks, discussions or battles occur far from the public eye. I hope maybe there is room for coming together in way that brings many key players together to have a &quot;talk&quot;. <br /> <br />Regardless, one thing that you said struck me. I guess there will always be some disagreement about &quot;what is best for victims&quot;. If another crime victim, who like you has been injured by violent crime, believes that he/she would be better off if the offender (in his/her own case) is released from prison then do you support that? I know there are such cases where the (direct) victim's family is passionately advocating for the release of an inmate, often a lifer. <br /> <br />It seems whatever &quot;side&quot; you are on (i.e. victim's side or the side of the offender) there will always be disagreement on certain cases. Someone will always argue that this is &quot;in the best interest of the victim's family&quot;. But who speaks for all victims when victims do not always agree? <br /> <br />It seems to me what we might agree upon is that the victim should have the right to restorative justice. That right would include the right for the victim to meet the offender in his/her case if the victim desires this. That, of course as you know, is only one example of restorative justice in action. But I believe it is an important &quot;right&quot; that is often denied. <br /> <br />Again, I hope the dialogue that continues is respectful. <br /> <br />Regards, <br /> <br />Lisa Rea

Jennifer
Jennifer says:
Aug 11, 2009 08:33 AM

Lisa - I know that most genuine RJ advocates welcome victims to the table. <br /> <br />I continue to watch with some concern the thankfully few prison reform advocates who do not welcome victims, but still want to use RJ in some sort of easy formula: &quot;victim forgives, killer gets out&quot;. This of course in no way resembles the complicated and truly difficult work that RJ genuinely is. <br /> <br />As to your question: First, I do not believe in &quot;sides&quot; - at all. I believe in communities and that we are all in this together. And I know how widely varying all the perspectives are in any public policy debate this complex. <br /> <br />What is &quot;best&quot; for victims I only define in this context as the enforcement of their rights. These rights are enshrined in 33 states constitutions, in statute in all 50 states and Federal Law, as well as International Treaty and human rights standards. (see www.victimlaw.org for good coverage of this in law) <br /> <br />What is best is to have their rights to notification, to be heard, to restitution, safety, etc - what they DO with those rights is their choice. But no one can or should take away their rights to fully participate in, as they so choose, matters pertaining to their cases. <br /> <br />But your questions also seem to imply something that we simply know is not the case - that the victim can or even should be able to determine the sentence of the offender. <br /> <br />We ALL know they cannot! <br /> <br />You know this as well as anyone - in the United States, the offense in crimes of these nature is against the STATE. <br /> <br />I may be the victim, but I do NOT determine the crime or the penalty. Nor should I. <br /> <br />If victims determined penalties, there would be a lot more executions than early releases, I would sadly predict. <br /> <br />No, its mostly very GOOD that victims don't get to say what the punishment should be. <br /> <br />That is foundational to our Constitution and Government. <br /> <br />I have also passionately advocated for the release of certain offenders. But I do not get to pick the sentence. That is indeed only the pervue of the State Legislatures, and sometimes less often, the Congress. <br /> <br />For the most part in the United States RJ is still just an add-on program - certainly one we want to all see practiced much more widespread and in a much more integrated way. <br /> <br />And I DO very much want, as you well know, for every victim who wants to have RJ with their offender to be able to have that opportunity. <br /> <br />For that kind of RJ to happen, though, 5 things must be present. <br /> <br />1. A victim who is willing. <br />2. A victim who is able. <br />3. An offender who is willing. <br />4. An offender who is able. <br />5. An infrastructure to support the process. <br /> <br />It is all too rare that these 5 factors are present at the same time. Far too rare. We all need to work on that, as I am. <br /> <br />Not only do we need to work on that, we need to work on getting the victims &quot;right&quot; to RJ when possible, defined. Because it is not in any of the victims rights constitutional amendments that I have read. <br /> <br />This is work the Victim Movement must do. <br /> <br />The offender/prison reform movement needs to work on bridge building to victims, and a key step there will be to commit significant resources to outreach, education, conversation, support, and Restorative Justice wherever possible. <br /> <br />I hope that this will be ACTED upon - I am ready to talk with JLWOP reform advocates anytime about their ideas and best ways to proceed. We should meet and talk, exactly as you suggest. <br /> <br />I do not speak for any other victims but myself in this regard, and certainly not for our organization at www.jlwopvictims.org which takes no official stand on reforms (because victims disagree) - only on their right to be the key stakeholders in the conversation that they clearly ARE. <br /> <br />Jennifer Bishop Jenkins <br />www.jlwopvictims.org <br />

Aura Castro
Aura Castro says:
Aug 13, 2009 07:08 PM

This is my personal opinion and I would like to express my respect for the victims' families as well as the offender's families. <br /> <br />It have heen proven neurologically that a child is unable to process the life circustances in a analytic or racional way. It is the reason why a minor child can not get a driver license until 17 years old, but the insurance the parent will have to pay may exceed the regular policy payment. <br />Considering the fact that 60-70% of the children in Juveniles correctionals are disabled or have at least one type of learning disability, and most of the youth prosecussions are coming from school complaints (schoolhousing-jailhousing pipeline), and the staticts confirmed that the same youth will be jailed 3 times before leaving high school. <br /> <br />We need to fix this broken system, but my opinion is that The Dept of Education is the key to ammend the Juvenile Justice System. <br /> <br />Despite the need we have to reform the Life without parole sentence for young children (13-14) that is only been used in Somalia and The United States of America. <br /> <br />Aprox 80 thousand disabled youth are sent to correctional facilities per year. We need to question the Dept of Special Ed: Why is all this happening? What need to be done in order to prevent it? <br />When the broken school system be re-designed, families will have different goals, moral and sense of respect, but also School Principals will get their possitions by merits and educational levels, not by how much they work in a political campaign. Then the Juvenile Justice System will become a matter of change. A young offender has the possibility of been treated and monitored. We wont have 80 thousand young children placed in correctional facilities every year waiting to become future criminals before they reach 18 years old and needed to be sentence to life without parole for committing a crime that could be prevented. <br /> <br />One need is conected to the other. <br />1) Family 2) Education 3) Juvenile victims <br /> <br />

Jennifer Bishop Jenkins
Jennifer Bishop Jenkins says:
Aug 15, 2009 01:56 AM

Aura - You are going far beyond the narrow issue of JLWOP, and raising some broad concerns which I mostly share. But while I share your general vision that juvenile sentencing, as with most harsh sentences in the US Criminal Justice system, needs to be reformed, you are actually mis-representing, or misunderstanding, what the &quot;brain research&quot; actually says about developmental culpabilty for behavior, and the development of the frontal lobe in the late teens and twenties. You have way overstated the case, and would urge scrupulously careful accuracy when trying to dialogue with victims families and the general public about what to do with those FEW rare cases of cold, calculated murderers by those few teens at the &quot;worst&quot; end of the spectrum. <br /> <br />

Faye
Faye says:
Mar 11, 2010 04:25 PM

I have a cousin in North Carolin Prisons as of today, he was sentence to life in prison w/o possibility of parole in a crime that happened 10 years. he was 17 yrs old. He had 4 other co-defendants who are now out living their lives. My cousin is Africian American and his co-defendants are white. Of course, he had a court appointed attorney for representation; and his co-defendant's had private paid attorneys. They went to a party one night which involved heavy drinking by all teenagers. A fight broke out and another juvenile had a gun and was going to shoot everyone; so he and others jumped this juvenile by kicking, hitting, pushing tried to take the gun. In the process of all this a mallet was used and the vic was killed. My cousin is now 27 and a grown man. he is not a bad person; at a young age and partying and drinking. how can you focus on think about taking another person life. I know my cousin will not hurt a anyone in that matter. I would go into more details about this case; but it is to complicated. The point is, people make mistakes as juveniles and adults. As a juvenile, we can learn to correct our mistakes; but it does not take a Life time to make those changes. I am fighting so hard right now to give my cousin a second chance; as of his co-defendants. We continue to pray and God will open the right doors. I do believe juveniles do not deserve a life sentence w/o possibility of parole; however, there are some that are violent and need that structure environment. I am talking about the first time offenders who made a bad decision at that time. thank you

lisa rea
lisa rea says:
Mar 19, 2010 06:16 PM

Faye, I wanted to respond to your message since I was the author of this blog entry regarding juveniles who receive life without parole sentences in the U.S. <br /> <br />Thank you for sharing this story about your cousin. It is a tragic situation. It is hard to know what to say since you have mentioned quite a few things about your cousin's case which appear to be the epitome of injustice. <br /> <br />It is clear that the entire U.S. justice system is broken because the stories of injustice, and inconsistent and arbitrary application of the law, are seen nationwide on all levels of the system. What can be done about it? <br /> <br />We must build support for systemic reform based on restorative justice principles. That means we must raise the issue of justice reform higher on the agenda of lawmakers (at all levels) than it is today. <br /> <br />Regarding juveniles and adults and which category of offender have the potential for change, I would say both. Unrealistic? Not if restorative justice is actualized in the system. Each offender needs to be held accountable directly for his offense. The injury to victims must be acknowledged and addressed in ways that lead to a measure of healing. <br /> <br />I hope the situation with your cousin improves. I also suggest that you get involved in any local (state) restorative justice work happening in NC. <br /> <br />Blessings, <br /> <br />Lisa Rea <br />

Jason
Jason says:
Apr 03, 2010 01:56 AM

to say that kids do not know right from wrong is a cop-out. i was in and out of lockup as a kid and i truly understood that the things i was doing was wrong but i did not care. if a kid kills someone close to me or kills another kid then i would want blood. i believe that LWOP is mercy. after all 5 years ago those same murderers would get the death penalty. i believe in LWOP not matter what age. and i hope that it stays that way forever <br /> <br /> <br /> <br /> <br />jason cooper

muriel   Schnierow
muriel Schnierow says:
Jul 16, 2010 08:26 AM

In &quot;Columbine&quot; Dave Cullen analyses the &quot;shooters&quot; <br />skillfully and has done much research.Cullen concludes that Eric harris the lead shooter was a psychopath. i suggest reading chapter 42 pp256.i have read it many times and spent years studying the research on Psychopathic Behavior. I have especially read the work of Dr. Robert Hare of u of British Columbia ,the seminal researcher on this behavior .They are neither curable nor reversible and they look sane ,are model prisoners, and confuse the system.There is a test (Hare psychopathic check listR)Eric harris gave signs of what he would do. Dylan Klebold his accomplish was a follower probably depressed and suicidal .Psychopaths have neither concscience nor empathy and i have case after case in my file of release and then Heinous crimes. So we must look carefully at &quot;Restorative Justice&quot; .Obviously there may be some juveniles who can be rehabilitated but the crime is often the diagnosis.I recommend in addition to Columbine, Herve Cleckley's &quot;the Mask of Sanity&quot; and Robert Hare's &quot;Without Conscience&quot; This is a tragic condition and there are estimates that perhaps 3% of our population are Psychopathic or sociopathic.legere

muriel   Schnierow
muriel Schnierow says:
Jul 20, 2010 01:27 PM

Naturally our aim is always Justice. But in the case of Psychopathic Behavior Disorder or Psychopathy we do not know why these people act as they do .We do know that torture,serial killing, willful execution style murder are what they do best. My aim is proper sentencing and proper release and of course Justice. .In order to accomplish that we must understand that age does not impact on the ability of a psychopath to be &quot;cured&quot; there is no cure. I strongly recommend again the Work of Dr. Robert hare and that is in my previous message. Many young people can be rehabilitated but from what crimes. Not the Heinous brutal sadistic crimes of violent psychopaths. The 3% impacts on the entire culture <br />and i would be happy to share my information and files with people in the system who want Justice and safety. <br />Very Sincerely, <br />Muriel Schnierow <br />Citizens Resource for Women and Children <br /><a href="&#0109;ailto&#0058;murs&#0064;kwom.com">murs&#0064;kwom.com</a>

muriel schnierow
muriel schnierow says:
Jul 21, 2010 02:07 PM

My aim is justice and a fair society with educated police, corrections, courses for judges (like Ohio),and a recognition that heinous ,brutal ,sadistic crime is NOT the result of an under-developed brain .Yes emotional judgement does develop at about age 22 or 23. Yes a youngster might go somewhere and drive with someone who ends up murdering while our youngster sits at the wheel. Then we cannot rely on a rigid law. For example many couples have consensual sex at 15(girl) and 18(boy) and may end up being married for 50 years .This is true of some of my classmates. but if a 35 year old seduces or drugs a 14 year old that is rape.Statutary rape should be reviewed. But Justice forall should prevail. <br />Sincerely, <br />Muriel Schnierow(Director and Founder) <br />citizensresourceforwomenandchildren.com

Shirley
Shirley says:
Apr 01, 2013 09:00 PM

I think juvniles need another çhange they let alot of people out that kill.

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