On June 9, 2009, the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security (a division of the House Judiciary Committee) held a hearing to evaluate the Juvenile Justice Accountability and Improvement Act of 2009. Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA), the chairman of the subcommittee and the sponsor of this piece of legislation, conducted the hearing and was the lone Democrat in attendance for the entire hearing. Other subcommittee members in attendance included, Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Ted Poe (R-TX), Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), and Daniel Lungren (R-CA). Democrat Mike Quigley was in attendance for part of the hearing but missed the questioning of the witnesses.
The Subcommittee met to evaluate H.R. 2289, a bill that would establish an opportunity for parole or similar release for child offenders sentenced to life in prison with out the possibility of parole. In 39 states in the country, and under federal law, teens who are too young to vote, buy cigarettes, or serve on the juries they appear before, can be tried as adults and convicted to juvenile life without parole (JLWOP). There are currently 2,484 persons in the U.S. serving sentences of life without parole for crimes committed as minors, while there are no youth serving JLWOP anywhere else in the world.
The Subcommittee called various individuals to testify, either in favor of ending juvenile life without parole sentences or against H.R. 2289, which would affect sentences currently being served across the country. The speakers included the following:
- Mark Osler – Law Professor, BaylorLaw School in Texas
- Linda White – Former Board Member of the Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, Texas
- Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins – Co-Founder National Organization of Victims of “Juvenile Lifers”, IL
- Anita Colon – Pennsylvania State Coordinator for the National Campaign for Fair Sentencing for Children
- James Fox – District Attorney in San Mateo County, California
- Marc Mauer – Executive Director of Sentencing Project in Washington, DC
Congressmen Gohmert, Lungren, Goodlatte, and Poe spoke out against the Act because of the effect it would have on a state’s exclusive control of sentencing. In some states, life without parole is mandatory for certain crimes, and this legislation would infringe upon the ability of those states to retain control over sentencing of offenders in their jurisdiction. Congressman Gohmert expressed that, though he personally finds it repugnant to sentence a juvenile to life without parole, it should be left to the states to make this decision.
The witnesses testifying varied in their opinions of H.R. 2289. Mark Osler, a former prosecutor, spoke on behalf of the merits of the bill and emphasized the importance of striking a balance between retributive justice and mercy. Linda White, the mother of a child killed and sexually assaulted by two fifteen-year-old boys, agreed with Osler. She testified that life without parole is too harsh a sentence for juveniles, and young people should be held accountable in a way that reflects age and the ability to change.
Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins told the story of her sister, who was killed by a juvenile currently serving a sentence of life without parole. She testified about the loss of evidence and inability to find witnesses for parole hearings if sentences change as a result of the bill. Additionally, she spoke of the need for victim notification, the traumatizing effect of parole hearings, and the notion that a “one size fits all” mandate would not work for sentencing across all states. After debating the merits of the bill with Chairman Scott, Bishop-Jenkins conceded that she would support the bill if it were prospective only, and focused on requiring states to eliminate mandatory transfers.
The Subcommittee did not reach a consensus on H.R. 2289 by the end of the hearing, with Chairman Scott maintaining his support of legislation to end juvenile life without parole sentences, and Congressmen Gohmert, Poe, Goodlatte, and Lungren keeping their position that sentencing decisions should be left to the states.
By: Ashlee Richman
(CJS Summer Intern Law Student from The Washington College of Law at American University)
You can view a video of the hearing which lasts an hour and twenty-seven minutes at: http://judiciary.edgeboss.net/real/judiciary/crime/crime060909.smi. You will need to download a free version of RealPlayer to view the video if you do not already have the program downloaded. You can download RealPlayer from http://tinyurl.com/o5zbvf.