To Legislators being asked to vote to retroactively end life sentences for murderers convicted of crimes they committed before turning age 18:
When there is proposed retroactive legislation to undo life without parole sentences, all crime victims’ family members who would be affected by the legislation must be found, notified, and allowed to give input. Not doing this is possibly unconstitutional or illegal in your state. If it’s not, it should be. The intent of the victims’ rights provisions in place in ALL 50 states and federally is that victims of crimes get to be notified of all matters pertaining to their cases, and heard in those processes BEFORE decisions are made. Notifying them AFTER you pass legislation that so powerfully affects them does not meet the spirit of the law.
Even more, as leaders in your state who make all-important decisions each day about public policy, we all rely on you to do what is right. And what is right in this issue is to make sure that murder victims’ families are not left out of vital policy considerations if the legislation you contemplate would be retroactive.
Further, the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on the sentencing of teen killers has set in motion a significant push to change the laws in your state with regards to the most violent teens already in custody and yet to offend. Victims’ families voices are vital to help you work out the best public policy and studies show that when victims’ voices are included in sentencing policy decisions, public trust with regards to the decisions you make is increased.
There are well-funded advocates for juvenile offenders in many states who are asking on behalf of those who murdered our loved ones that you retroactively change their sentences duly given through the court system.
So we ask for your consideration.
You cannot know the agony of a murder victims family member unless you have been one yourself. And you cannot know the dangers of each of their cases and the offenders involved until you have heard about them first hand.
Worst, you could contribute to mentally and possibly physically endangering victims if you act to retroactively provide early release to the offenders. This is especially true when the murder victims’ families walked away from the cases being promised, and truly believing, that the sentences were permanent.
Victims walked away from life without parole sentences without any inkling that the sentences would ever be retroactively undone by legislatures.
They don’t register for notifications, they don’t save records they would need for parole hearings, and they don’t monitor the cases. They walk away saying, “Thank God that’s over.” And believing it’s over forever.
You may have been told the USA is the only nation that sentences teens to life. Not true. Other nations do as well, and many do much worse.
You may have been told that there are close to 3,000 juvenile lifers in the nation. Not true. There are less than 1,500.
And all were found to be legally adults by the courts in your state, after demonstrating high degrees of culpability and knowingly and willfully committing among the most heinous and violent acts known to humankind.
You may have been told that the offenders were themselves really the victims – not the killers. The true facts of the crimes are worse than what has been publicized.
You may have been told that the offenders are not criminally culpable because of their brain development. Not true – that research has been misinterpreted.
But what we know is that in state legislative battles, the stories being told about these killers are coming from the offenders themselves – not the court records.
Most JLWOP killers nationally were 17 at the time of the crimes, with many being just days or weeks away from their 18th birthdays. And all of them are guilty of not just “routine” murders, but aggravated capital level or near capital level offenses that, in many cases, could have resulted in death sentences had they been weeks older. And most of these offenders exhibited a heinous and repeated disregard for human life that puts them in that very small but important-to-attend-to set of people who are too dangerous to walk among the rest of us – ever.
Prospective changes in sentencing law are not a victims’ rights issue if the changes are only for future sentences. Anyone who attempts retroactive changes in the laws, however, is up against a significant conflict with the constitutional rights to notification and a voice in their cases ( including in sentencing hearings) that victims have in all 50 states .
We believe this is the case because of the serious and broad support in our nation for holding fully accountable those who know it is wrong to kill (as most everyone does who is not a very young child of virtually pre-school age) and who plots and carries out brutal, aggravated and extremely heinous murders, multiple murders, or murders with special aggravated circumstances. We have not seen any evidence yet from all the studies already done that most “juvenile lifers” were under “peer pressure” when they killed, or that they were acting impulsively, or that they did not know what they were doing. And because most people, while being sympathetic for mistakes made by younger people, value public safety most of all and do not wish to risk their communities, given what we know some people, regardless of age, are capable of.
The Life Without Parole sentence is widely regarded as the appropriate sentence for those who show an exceptional disregard for human life. Many believe some offenders have simply lost the right to walk among us. And while most of us believe that this sentence should be incredibly rare, and only reserved for the proverbial “worst of the worst”, sadly, there are such truly bad actors among us human beings on planet Earth.
The most complicated aspect of the issue is the human rights question – that no matter the act, no one under that magic age of 18, according to some international treaties, should receive a life sentence.
But victims’ rights are also human rights. And if a reasonable determination can be made, with full due process, by many fine expert legal minds functioning in full integrity, that the killer would never meet the standards of the state for parole, then the victims’ rights to not have to be tortured by re-engaging constantly with the offenders in hearings and reviews for release should take precedence.
And if those advocating for change in the sentencing laws for teen killers do not find and notify every victims’ family members of their proposed legislation while they can still have a voice in the processes, then they are guilty of violating the most innocent and injured of all people – the victims – in order to help the most guilty – the killers. This set of priorities makes no sense.
We do not question the motives of those who advocate for juvenile killers. We all love children. We all want to help raise the best children we can. We should not be criticized in any way for not loving and valuing and caring about young people as much, or more, than those who advocate for these young offenders do.
We do believe that advocates of juvenile criminals see the world as they would like it to be, however. With regards to the dangers inherent in human nature and what some people are capable of, we sadly have been forced to see the world as it IS.
And we have paid the highest price imaginable to learn that lesson.