The Legislative Effort to Retroactively End Life Sentences for Teen Killers
The current state of flux on changing state laws for juveniles who kill is, frankly, too complex now for this volunteer-run website to even attempt to stay current. We continue the historical information that we have been posting but we are in a constant state of legal change everywhere now. We urge victims families to contact the county prosecutor in the location where the murder took place for the most current information on whether or not the offender in your case is being re-sentenced or not. And again, if you have any questions about the laws as they are now in your state, please contact your local District Attorney or States Attorney.
Ever since the Supreme Court’s Roper v Simmons decision in 2005 banning executions of offenders under age 18, there has been a well-funded, small, but organized effort to pass legislation in states and federally to retroactively end all life sentences for teen murderers. To date, they have been largely unsuccessful in changing the laws. State after state have rejected their legislative attempts (see more below). And we know the reasons why.
Why the Legislative Effort is a Mess
Most people and cultures throughout human history have identified murder as the worst thing any human being can do.
Life sentences are very different than the death penalty. And life sentences for aggravated murders and mass murders in the United States, if the offender is certified to stand trial as an adult, are not only Constitutional, they are widely supported for public safety and as appropriate justice.
Almost all states – 43 of them – as well as the Federal Government, the Military jurisdictions and most US Territories, currently have laws that allow teenagers of a certain age to be transferred to adult court and sentenced as an adult if the crime and their own culpability warrants it. And all of these states afford significant legal protections for the offenders to insure justice. And the Supreme Court has thrice ruled that JLWOP is Constitutional for murder cases in Roper, Graham, and Miller.
The USA is one of more than a dozen nations worldwide that allow this sentence. Other nations are far harsher and still allow the juvenile death penalty, have far fewer protections for juvenile offenders, and allow sexual slavery, torture and even forced labor.
People know that 16 and 17 year olds are old enough to understand that killing is wrong. People believe in accountability. And people generally recognize that there are a rare few human beings on this earth that are just dangerous by nature and cannot be allowed to walk among us.
Finally, the offender advocacy movement against JLWOP has used ridiculous messaging trying to build sympathy for murderers amid a campaign of misinformation. This kind of behavior does not win over the votes of legislators.
A Funding-Driven Movement
One of the main reasons that the movement in support of teen killers was created was to allow them to pursue significant funding that became available.
An executive director of a prison reform non-profit in one state admitted honestly that they began work against JLWOP because it was a new way to bring significant funding streams into his struggling organization. Soros, the DLA Piper Law Firm, and others (see “Who Are The Offender Advocates?”) doled out millions in grants and fellowships to work against JLWOP beginning in 2005.
Why is there significant funding available for this effort?
Anti-incarceration activists with a larger agenda to end all long term and life sentences for all offenders, no matter what the crime, have been citing trends in overall U.S. Prison population. Some of us do actually agree that the numbers are worth pondering, with 2.2 million Americans currently incarcerated. Economic pressures in these historically troubled times, and while the prison population ages with Baby Boomers along with the rest of the population, are significant.
But over half of those in prison in the United States are serving time for non-violent and drug related offenses. Rising prison populations have literally nothing to do with the murder rates. Violent crime rates overall, in fact, have been going down.
One of the reasons that violent crime has gone down is because more dangerous offenders have been removed from our midst. So it is working.
But we have to question the wisdom of the offender advocates who have chosen in recent years to champion the very small number of teens who have committed some of the worst crimes in American history, for which they have received life sentences, and turn them into poster children for prison reform.
An impressive financial incentive created by funders like George Soros (see “who are the offender advocates?”) have led to this campaign to end JLWOP. And they have stated both publicly and privately that the effort to end life sentences for teen killers is simply “the camel’s nose under the tent”. Teen killers are seen as a “sympathetic” target population to try to reduce sentences for, as the first step to reduce prison sentences overall. And some of them have stated openly to us that once they hope to succeed in ending JLWOP, they will begin work on ending ALL life sentences in the USA for murder.
We have no problem with prison reform efforts, and would especially be supportive of efforts to end over-sentencing of non-violent offenders. These measures would go a long way towards reducing prison populations. Prisons need to have room for the worst and most violent offenders, which is the real reason we have prisons – to keep us safe from those who threaten our safety.
The Variety of Sentencing Models
Our Constitution is founded on the principle that states determine the penalties for crimes. And that means that crimes by definition and their penalties do vary from state to state. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to sentencing and crimes in the USA. States even vary when they draw the “bright lines” in the law for adult age, juvenile age, what constitutes first and second degree, what defines an accomplice, etc.
Determinate versus Indeterminate Sentencing
Many states have rejected the practice of Indeterminate Sentencing which gives offenders a range of years (10-20) that they will serve, and then leaves the cases to a Parole Board to decide when that departure time will be.
But many states found that practice wildly discriminatory, with some murderers for example only serving a few years, and others a lifetime. And too often those decisions seemed to be based on the race or socio-economic level of the offender. Worst of all, many of them became repeat violent offenders. Ask just one murder victim’s family if the life of their lost loved one is worth this.
Determinate Sentencing and other Truth In Sentencing models fix the number of years but then allow the offender in most cases to earn time off with good behavior, a much wiser system in our mind. But some states do not allow earned good time in the case of murder.
OBJECTIONS TO RETROACTIVE LEGISLATION MANDATING PAROLE FOR TEEN KILLERS
We have several serious objections to the legislation that offender advocates have filed in Congress and in several states to retroactively end JLWOP, beyond what is obvious in the depth of our agony over the murders of those we love. But it’s clear from the start that until someone has walked a mile in our shoes, no one can even come close to understanding what it is like to have a family member murdered.
The Legislative Proposals Violates Victims Rights
Crime Victims have rights spelled out in law and Constitution in all 50 states, as well as in the Federal system, the military courts, and all US Territories. Among these rights are the right to be notified, present for, heard in, and to consult in advance about any matter pertaining to the sentencing of the offender in their cases. Legislative proposals by offender advocates regarding retroactive imposition of parole into natural life sentences violate these victims rights. Download a legal brief written for victims in Illinois, but the principles apply generally nationally.
To retroactively introduce parole to a sentence where it was never possible violates victims rights to due process. Life without parole sentences are different than any other kind of sentence! Victims walk away from these trials believing and being told that the offender can never get out. So they do not register for victim notification, they do not retain records they would need for a parole battle down the road. And they do not “watch” for parole hearings or other offender activities that they need to be aware of.
Retroactivity is what makes these legislative proposals a violation of victims’ rights. Prospective proposals in state legislatures, such as the one that passed in Colorado, do not violate victims’ rights. They are of course a matter of concern for public safety and justice.
The Legislative Proposals are Very Expensive for States
One study in California of the retroactive parole proposals put forth by Senator Yee for teen killers put the actual cost of his bill in the millions. Just the initial hearings he was proposing for teen killers would have been $50,000 per case and more. And then for hundreds of inmates, every couple of years – it could bankrupt an already financially stressed state.
In other states where setting up a parole board would be required in states with determinate sentencing, the proposals are even more ridiculous. Set up a multi-million dollar bureaucracy for a handful of cases? Ridiculous. And we already have checks and balances to assure justice in their cases. Obviously this all, again, violates victims rights to due process and to be consulted in the process as well.
The Legislative Proposals Endanger Public Safety
There are too many examples to list of offenders obtaining release and then violently recidivating. In fact, younger offenders commit crimes again about half the time. Half the time. In other words a 50-50 shot that someone you let out of prison will kill again, will rape, torture, etc. On the News and Cases page we detail a few, but specifically one to show the point – Maurice Clemmons. But there are thousands of other examples.
We have a right to be safe and the public supports life sentences for the most dangerous offenders for a reason.
The Legislative Proposals Deny Victims Legal Finality and Can Be Torturous
Murder victims family members have been deeply traumatized and science about how trauma impacts the brain does give good reasons for extreme caution in re-awakening those traumatic memories. We suggest a comprehensive national study by the funders of this effort into what victims families go through in states where regular parole hearings that re-engage them with a violent offender are a routine part of their lives. Compare that with the lives of the victims families of a natural life case where they have obtained legal finality and get to move ahead in their lives.
Never forgetting of course. Never without grief. But without the offender in their daily lives.
We know what the results of this study would show because we live it every day and talk to hundreds of other victims like ourselves. Life without parole is the best possible outcome for a murder victims family member.
And when the offender is clearly a continually violent persons, LWOP is good for everyone else too. LWOP keeps us safer – hence the decreasing violent crime rates over the last 20 years. LWOP saves money because with a 50% recidivism rate, offenders have to be re-investigated, re-apprehended, re-tried, re-sentenced, and new victims are made. All told we do not save money letting violent offenders go early.
We Support Better Prison Programming
Better programs in prison are still called for. Most offenders in prison do get out one day. And all offenders are human beings with needs for health care, mental and physical stimulation. We think they should be allowed to work towards making restitution to their victims and to the state. We think they should be allowed to earn money and have it all go to their victims and their upkeep. We think that many offenders WANT this – they want to do something good with their time. We encourage mentoring programs where the offender can be helpful to youthful first time offenders needing an education about what lies ahead for them if they re-offend.
The statement on our Memorial Page says it all about how we feel about life sentences for those who killed our loved ones. We hope you will read it.
NEWS FROM STATES in recent years
- Michigan legislature passed victim-friendly bill to deal with teen killers’ life sentences. Victims’ families have suffered re-traumatization in order to be heard. Details here. Attorney General Schuette shows exemplary concern for victims’ families in his persistence against offender advocates.
- The Debate That Agonizes Victims Families: whether or not the Miller v Alabama Supreme Court ruling should be applied retroactively or not rages on, with victims families traumatized by all the uncertainty and re-opening of wounds.
- Massachusetts Supreme Court votes to traumatize victims families by re-opening their loved ones’ murder sentences. A leading newspaper calls for victims families to be treated better.
- Alabama’s Supreme Court joins other state courts and lawmakers in finding that the Supreme Court’s ruling last summer for optional sentences only for teens that kill is NOT retroactive.
- Pennsylvania‘s Supreme Court rules against retroactive application of the Miller Supreme Court decision while the Legislature votes to preserve Life Without Parole sentences as an option going forward. And, as elsewhere nationally, offender advocates’ claims about offender numbers are exaggerated.
- Victims’ families in California approve as the 9th Circuit rules in support of the discretionary life sentences in place for teen killers.
- Nebraska‘s new law for sentencing of teen killers is supported by many victims’ families and legal experts.
- Iowa‘s Supreme Court orders re-sentencing for teen killers, re-traumatizing victims’ families
- South Dakota – a lone Court rules on one offender’s case.
- Connecticut legislation to free teen killers defeated
- The Texas Senate Affirms Appropriate Prison Sentences
Texas‘ legislature passes a bill in special session to comply with Supreme Court regulations on sentencing of juveniles who commit capital crimes.
- A New Hampshire case is reflecting national trends in offender re-sentencing after Miller ruling
- Montana abolishes life sentences for teen killers