Friday, June 12, 2009

House Committee Debates Eliminating Life Without Parole Sentences for Youth

by Michael Novinson
Friday, June 12, 2009

Washington, D.C. - infoZine - Two middle-aged women, both victimized by the murder of a loved one, sat side-by-side during Tuesday's meeting of the House Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee.

But as for the issue at hand - ending the sentencing of juveniles to life without parole - the women's views are miles apart.

To the left sat Linda L. White, whose 26-year-old daughter was found dead in 1986 following a sexual assault by two 15-year-old boys. To the right sat Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, whose brother-in-law, sister and their unborn child were murdered in 1990 by a 17-year-old boy for the "thrill" of it.

White, who lives near Houston, became a death educator and grief counselor after her daughter was murdered and attended a meditated dialogue with Gary Brown, one of her daughter's murderers, in the early 2000's.

"Gary is proof that young people, even those who have done horrible things, can be reformed," said White, who is a member of the Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation.

Bishop-Jenkins, who lives near Chicago, also became an advocate for violence prevention. But her experience did little to brighten her perception of the prospects for reconciliation in most murder cases. In 2007, she co-founded the National Organization of Victims of "Juvenile Lifers" to protect victims' rights.

Personal coping mechanisms, experience with the criminal justice system and a broader sociopolitical worldview have combined to give the victims of the most heinous crimes dramatically different views on H.R. Bill 2289, the Juvenile Justice Accountability and Improvement Act of 2009.

This bill, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., would require states to grant parole hearings for youth murderers who are serving a life sentence during their first 15 years of incarceration and every three years thereafter. Any state that did not comply would be denied some federal anti-crime funding.

It is legal to sentences juveniles to life without parole in 44 states. But the use of such laws occurs in very concentrated areas - of the 2,574 youths currently serving life without parole, 44 percent reside in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Louisiana.

These states often require that first-degree murder and some other cases be transferred out of juvenile courts. Other states review a juvenile defendant's competency or capacity for rehabilitation before transferring a case. Twenty-eight states mandate sentencing offenders under age 18 to life without parole for certain crimes.

Proponents of H.R. 2289 rely on statistics to demonstrate the injustice of these sentences.

"The U.S. is the only nation on Earth to sentence its youth to die in prison," Scott said during the hearing.

Behavioral research by psychologists such as Laurence Steinberg of Temple University has found that the brain systems responsible for self-control do not fully develop until a person is in their early 20s. He argued in a written statement that youth offenders should not be punished as harshly as adults for comparable crimes. The bill's supporters argue that youths who commit crimes are more likely to be rehabilitated than adults and re-enter society as contributing members.

Opponents such as Bishop-Jenkins argue that H.R. 2289 would transfer the life sentence from the offenders to the victims by forcing them to regularly re-engage during parole hearings with the person who murdered their family member.

"To reopen this pain every three years, for the rest of our lives, and perhaps those of our children, is quite literally torture," she said.

Most legal and congressional opposition focuses on the federal government overreaching into state criminal justice systems. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said the bill violates the principles of federalism that are at the heart of the American judicial system. Other Republican members of Congress at the hearing agreed.

"It's the federal government deciding that states don't matter," said Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif. "Maybe there are some changes that need to be made in individual states, but this is overwhelmingly over-the-top."

Indeed, some states have reconsidered their policy on this issue. Colorado and Kentucky recently banned sentencing youths to life without parole. And in Louisiana - which has 335 inmates sentenced as juveniles to life - the state House of Representatives proposed a bill that would enable a meaningful review of cases involving juvenile offenders.

Bishop-Jenkins dismisses White's situation as not representative of most juvenile murder cases. Yet even though the two women don't see eye-to-eye on H.R. 2289, both want the criminal justice system reformed.

Bishop-Jenkins said courts should have the discretion to transfer juvenile offenders to the adult system. That would reduce the number of juvenile life-without-parole sentences without subjecting victims such as herself to the trauma of constant parole hearings.


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