Offender Advocates in Illinois released a “report” on JLWOP in Illinois in 2008 “Categorically Less Culpable”. Shortly after its release, we issued this point by point critique. We could write a similar critique of every similar publication in the nation – there have been similar pieces published in other states such as Michigan and California. This critique below gets the point across, though.
For more information about the flaws in the propagandistic approach being taken by the offender advocates see The Offenders section of this website and read the Heritage Foundation report linked on the right side bar, Adult Time for Adult Crime.
Critique of Categorically Less Culpable: Children Serving the Life Without the Possibility Of Parole Sentence in Illinois
Issued by the “Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children”
The original publication can be viewed at the Northwestern Law School website
Jennifer Bishop Jenkins wrote a response to a report that represented 18 months of agony for her family, during the time that the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of “Children” was researching and writing the report. Advocates who have shown only concern for the “rights” of killers, and not for the very real rights or lives of their innocent victims have given no effort at all to outreach to the families of the victims affected by their study.
We talked to them out of the deepest concern for the other victims families who have yet to be told of the work of the offender advocates. We only knew about it because of a professional association one of us had at Northwestern Law school. The report is not what we were told at its inception it would be – it does not document anything about the 103 cases other than race, age, county and a small handful of anecdotal experiences of difficulties. They ended up not telling those stories because they found that almost all of them were guilty murderers and mass murderers with not much to recommend them for sympathetic re-evaluation. The report, which was supposed to profile these 103 cases, gave no information about their crimes, their cases, or the patterns that these larger stories could tell. This report is an advocacy piece, plain and simple, filled with propagandistic and incomplete arguments, for guilty violent offenders who represent the worst of the worst in our criminal populations – at the expense of their innocent victims.
The Coalition’s message received wide coverage in the media. Media interviews on the day of the release of the report were exhausting and did not explain the problems with the report’s recommendations in any coverage we saw. From Jennifer: “I was misquoted in several outlets -I never said that parole might sometimes be acceptable – it would not be ever the way to address concerns over this sentence – and I never said all these cases would be death penalty eligible – and I never said I was not informed about the report – only that the other families were not – I never said the punishment should fit the crime. The number of times I was misquoted got tiring!”
Its another conversation for another day, but when victims are under this kind of stress to begin with, the media needs to learn not only how to interview them, but the importance of getting it right when they report . . .
We did however enjoy viewing the overwhelming public support evidenced on the NBC5 news poll – should Juvenile killers sometimes be able to receive a life sentence? 78% were with us – that yes, it was sometimes appropriate. 22% said no. And blogging on the topic stood, thankfully, strongly on the side of victims and public safety and appropriate life sentences for guilty mass murderers.
We offer here some critique of the report. And we repeat – we believe in Restorative Justice. We want all offenders to acknowledge their wrong, make restitution where possible to their victims. We want all human beings to get better, to grow and to be able to do good, to have hope, to help others, and to make the most of their lives. We want human rights for all – free or in prison. We continue to work hard for that. And we promise to continue to converse responsibly, as we have been, with all who want to reform an imperfect system, as we do, and to help to bring understanding to the victims as well as the offenders.
We believe that honors systems in prisons for long term and life sentences should reward reformed prisoners so that they can move to lower security prisons for the remainder of their terms and have the chance to go to school, mentor other troubled youth, and still have some quality of life where they can still have a positive impact on the world. We want all that for all the juvenile lifers as well. We want anyone who has been wrongly or overly sentenced to use clemency and appeals to right the wrongs in their cases and we would work to support that. We also know that most of them must just honorably serve their sentences and if they rehabilitate during that time, and we do earnestly hope for that, then they should be given program opportunities in prison for a life that allows them to help others, make restitution to their victims, and earn some privileges in prison for the remainder of their sentences. But the fact that most of these “juvenile lifers” are guilty and dangerous murderers who should spend the rest of their lives in prison is a fact acknowledged in the very report itself.
A PAGE BY PAGE critique of the report is below, first some general overall observations about some of the flaws we find with this report:
1. The use of the term “Children” to refer to these killers.
The report repeatedly references these juvenile killers as “children” because they are under 18 at the time of their offenses. And though that may be technically allowed with some readings of international law, the common usage in America is that “children” are younger, even single digits, and that those 13-19 are called teenagers or adolescents, or in legal matters, juveniles. Almost all the offenders were either 16 or 17, and have killed multiple people. And though the report says just once (if you blink – you will miss it!) that no 13 year old has gotten the sentence, it repeatedly implies that because Illinois law has the potential to give life to a 13 year old (it never has), there are 13 year olds in Illinois serving life sentences. Casual reading of the report would have most walking away saying – how awful! 13 year olds.
But there are none. And there are hardly any 14 year olds (4). And almost no 15 year olds (12). The largest group (50) of them were 17 when they killed and many were within weeks of being 18. And there were 37 sixteen year olds.
In Illinois 17 year olds are treated as adults in sentencing and in the Department of Corrections. Legally adults.
In some states adult is legally defined as 16 for many purposes. And we all know that 18 and 21 are legal definitions in many places for different kinds of things like being drafted, smoking, drinking, etc. The report’s citing of the “general age of majority” throughout the nation does not apply in this case. The law defines ages differently for differing legal purposes – for driving, voting, drinking, signing contracts, getting married, etc. Criminal law is no exception. These younger killers are legally defined as adults. And with most of them 16 or 17, to continually call them children just to provoke emotional response in the reader not only insults both the victims and the offenders, but drives a wedge into any reasonable conversation that we all might like to genuinely have on this troubling issue.
The definition of “adult” varies widely depending on what you are talking about. But when the law defines cold and calculated massive criminal behavior as adult enough to be tried and sentenced as an adult, in those thankfully rare circumstances, they are not children.
Half of the 103 “children” killers covered by this report were 17 at the time of their crimes.
87 of the 103 cases – almost 86% – were 16 or 17. Only 16 of the cases were 14 or 15 at the time of the crimes. The report should have concluded if it were truly data driven that Illinois does not have a serious problem with LWOP for juveniles. Certainly not compared to other states.
The emotional impact of the title of the report is not substantiated by the actual data. (We note here that the Coalition told us in our early conversations about what the report would be about the actual facts of the cases – it was not.)
We do not understand the mixed messages – in the report and in the media the Coalition said they were not advocating release for these killers. In fact they thought most should stay in because of the seriousness of their crimes. But they wanted them all to be regularly reviewed in any case. No matter the consequence of that process to the victims families.
SO – under Illinois Law they are all legally adults because they have met the criteria in the window of sentencing transfer to adult courts based on the extreme seriousness of their offenses and other factors. The law clearly says in the teen years their culpability is determined case by case with the seriousness of the offense and the conditions of the individual crimes. Using the term both legally and normatively, they are not children.
Particularly painful is the section in the report where we hear quotations from the offenders themselves describing their troubled upbringings. We know most young people do not even come close to reacting to the “parents who died” or “parents who were gone all the time with work” or “parents with substance abuse problems” or “parents who were abusive” by killing other innocent human beings. There is nothing in the way of a causal connection between bad parents and excused killing that has been demonstrated in this report. And to do so would be an ridiculous insult to the millions who have made far better choices in the wake of poor parenting. And what of those among the 103 Juvenile Lifers that had perfectly good upbringing and chose to kill for the sheer entertainment of it? Those kinds of cases (we know personally they are there) are of course not mentioned in this anecdotally selective report.
The real children in this report are the many child victims of these killers. The report does not even condemn the rapes and murders of the real children in Illinois killed by those they support sympathetically in this report!
Nowhere in the report are the stories of the child victims, or any of the victims, even mentioned. But the writers and researchers of the report do know those stories, from their exhaustive research. Why they chose not to tell those stories is clear. It would detract from their attempts to get sympathy for the killers.
2. Clemency is not even considered.
Clemency by a Governor as a solution to problematic sentencing, which is THE method prescribed in both our state and national Constitutions as the way to correct incorrect sentences, is completely dismissed by the report. In one small sentence, not well thought out, it simply cites a backlog of clemency petitions, and therefore concludes that clemency is an unworkable “solution” to a “systemic problem”.
First, the report never proves a systemic problem.
The 103 cases are not profiled in any way. 2 years of a massive team of researchers and the final report reveals nothing about the 103 cases except age, race, and county. Where is the data they gathered?
Left out . . .deliberately – because it did not support their agenda.
Second, the report proposes bringing back a parole system wisely dispensed with in Illinois back in 1978 because it was racist, expensive, ineffective and a monstrous bureaucracy, and is a FAR more complicated “solution” than simply working to address the backlog of clemency petitions on the Governor’s desk.
Third, according to what we have been told, not even one of the 103 reported “Juvenile Lifers” have even applied for clemency. They have not even tried.
Other approaches to possibly reforming the JLWOP system are not even discussed, underscoring the narrowness view of the report. This is inexcusable for scholars functioning at this level.
3. Statistics are distorted and misinterpreted in several places in the report.
For example, it says that only six states give out the JLWOP sentence more than Illnois (making us #7), implying that this makes us one of the worst states in the nation on the issue. In fact, since we are the 5th largest state in population, we are actually giving the sentence LESS often than most states for our size.
Actual sentencing numbers bring this point home even more clearly. Illinois is not the “big problem” when it comes to Juvenile LWOP, especially when compared to other states that have it.
Another example of a KEY FAILURE of this report:
It cries racism when it says that Illinois’ incarceration of African American Juvenile Lifers is “starkly higher” than the national average. 72% of Illinois’ 103 juvenile lifers are African American compared to the national “average” they say of 60%.
But that presentation of the statistics fails to take into account that Cook County, which is half of Illinois’ population, and the source of the vast majority of the Illinois JLWOP sentences, has the highest African American population BY FAR of any county in the United States. According to the 2000 US Census, Cook County has 1.4 million African Americans. No other county, including Los Angeles, New York and Houston, the other huge population centers, even come close. LA is a distant second with 990 thousand. We are half again as large as that largest population center in the USA when it comes to percentages of African Americans residing here. New York and Houston areas have almost only a third of our number.
So actually, given the actual populations, Illinois’ racial distribution in sentencing of these cases is probably far LESS racist proportionally than any other place in the nation. To get exact numbers would require knowing how many JLWOP cases come out of each county but a simple survey of the larger counties render the argument of this report regarding racism of Illinois’ JLWOP sentencing to be an exaggerated one.
A map of the United States on page 24 of the report , which actually does the better job of showing where Illinois stands compared to the rest of the nation in numbers of JLWOP cases, does not explain another significant factor when comparing states – that large heavy-sentencing states like Texas, which the map says does not have Juvenile LWOP, actually until recently executed its juvenile murderers. That is until the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. The map should have included those 9 states which formerly executed juveniles convicted of capital crimes. The map makes Texas look “humane” next to Illinois, which is of course ridiculous. There are less JLWOPers in Texas because up until 2005 they were all executed. And then immediately thereafter the entire state’s sentencing laws with regards to Life Without Parole for all age offenders went through significant reforms, eliminating among other things the life sentence for teen killers. One of the founders of NOVJL personally went to Austin, TX and stood with the family of Napoleon Beasley, the last juvenile executed in the nation, to oppose his execution. The Supreme Court case came too late to save him.
4. The treatment of victims in the report ranges from ignorance and insensitivity to outright cruelty.
Reading this report, one might almost conclude, if one did not know better, that there were no victims of these crimes at all, save perhaps the “children” killers themselves.
We got VERY tired during media interviews done with the release of this report to hear members of the Coalition say how much they had sympathy for the victims. Members of the Coalition that did media interviews out and out misrepresented their contacts with victims during the process of writing this report. Unless they have been keeping victim contacts a secret from us, the only victims of these 103 juvenile lifers that they talked to are the victims families of the killings done by David Biro, and possibly one other interfamilial murder where the victim and the offender were all in one family. The other victims families that they say they have been talking to are NOT the victims of these cases but of others.
Here is one of the most outrageous and hurtful points of all this:
They did NOT bring or welcome victims “to the table”, despite our pleas for over a year that they do so, as they said in media interviews on the day of the release.
At this point more than any other, I winced in pain. To the advocates for the “juvenile lifers” I say this loud and clear: Hypocrisy and lip service on the victim issue must be stopped in this dialogue.
They did not inform people whose lives would be horrifically affected if what they were proposing would become law. They have demonstrated no compassion for victims or shown ethical responsibility because if they had, all the affected victims families of the killers in this report would have been delegated some of the vast resources available to the Coalition and be at the very least advised of this process – as we have begged them to do for 18 months.
While twice the report actually refers to their crimes, and says they are “serious”, not a one of the actual crimes is even briefly discussed in this report that supposedly was to give a picture of all the cases – the result of almost two years of interviews and research by their coalition.
Reading the report its as if, because the murder victims are gone, and the killers remain, they are all that matter.
No thought is given at all to the life sentences being served by the survivors. And their proposed solutions at the end of the report do not address, not a single one, the needs of victims. In fact it is as if they actually calculated – what would be the way that could bring release opportunities to these juvenile lifers that would do the most to cause additional harm to victims families? And then proposed it as the only way out . . .regular parole reviews.
In a state that does not have parole or indeterminate sentencing.
That requires victims families to re-engage with the offender regularly for the rest of their lives.
Trading a life sentence for the guilty killers to the innocent victims families.
We know there are other “solutions” for any problem cases they find – we have proposed them and will continue to – for those few cases where there may have been genuine injustice. They only make the case for one in the report,, however – Marshan Allen.
We understand that is because there were no other “sympathetic” stories they could find among the cases. Most all were multiple murderers that if they were just a few months older would have likely received death penalty trials – truly the ‘worst of the worst’.
More ways the report is callous to victims:
In the section of the report labeled those “Most Affected” by the crimes of the Juvenile Lifers, the shocking number one on their list was the families of the offenders.
The victims’ families were number two.
The rest of the public is not mentioned.
And we want to just cry when we think of the hundreds of thousands of dollars, significant grant money, impressive staff support and time donated by a major law firm, and countless hours over several years put together this report and this coalition by some of the finest minds in the city of Chicago, all to document the prison sentences of these 100 killers. With over 48,000 prisoners serving in the Illinois Department of Corrections, and 2.2 million nationally in prison, most for non-violent offenses, many cases of genuine innocence still desperately needing attention, a vigorous death penalty still alive and well in the United States, and violent crime wreaking havoc on our lives and our economy, the choice to put these kinds of resources into a report like this just stuns us. Gun violence alone in the USA is killing 82 people a day on average, and those injured who survive are costing our economy $100 Billion dollars a year.
The absolute best way to PREVENT young people from facing life sentences for murders is to work HARD to limit their access to guns. No other step they could take would make as much of a difference. The choice to devote the staggering financial and personnel resources that went into this report to try to liberate and bring sympathy to these killers, in the wake of the much more profound needs of their innocent victims, just eludes us.
Other states such as the state of Tennessee have documented the terrible price paid by children of the VICTIMS of murder. Statistics show that many of them end up in foster care, on food stamps, in deprived financial situations where they cannot go to college, and even in the criminal justice system themselves. Where is the concern for these children?
Among the more painful moments of reading the report was the section “in their own words” where we hear quotations from the offenders serving life sentences for multiple or aggravated and coldly calculated murders about the sadness in their lives.
The sadness in their lives.
Sadness that they don’t get to see their families because of how far away the prison is. Sadness that their friends don’t want to write them now that they have committed multiple murders and have been put away for life. Sadness that they will never get married or have children of their own. Sadness that they don’t get to go to college except via correspondence.
The point at which I lost it (this really has been a traumatic process personally) reading this list of complaints was the point where one killer said he just wished he could live a normal life. So did, I am sure, the hundreds of murder victims whose lives were ended by these same sad “children”.
Words fail me as a murder victims family member of one of these Illinois JLWOP cases – how do I try to explain how that all sounds to me? How can we get the authors of this report to see how that reads to the rest of us? I suppose this is simply the dilemma faced by so many victims whose needs are so often ignored. What I can only take away from this section of the report is that the authors of this study either deliberately chose to be hurtful to victims, not caring because it interfered with their agenda, or that they never gave how this all would sound to the “outside world” a single coherent thought.
The glaring flaw in the whole report is the complete failure to address even a single detail of the nature of the crimes that landed them in prison serving life sentences in the first place. But to do so would make this a very different report – one that would most likely bolster, strongly, the case for imprisonment.
Remember, every single one of the inmates in this report have had full and exhaustive due process in courtroom after courtroom after courtroom. And while flaws do exist in the criminal justice system, as we have said many times very clearly, and we repeat, innocence is an extremely serious matter that must be addressed, the report itself admits that there are only a few cases where innocence is being investigated and where parole might actually be granted if they were to be reviewed in that way.
Finally and worst of all, the “fair notice” the report pays lip service to, that victims should have about these proposed sentence changes for the killers of their loved ones – sentences that they were told were permanent – should only happen AFTER the legislation to provide release opportunities to those sentenced to natural life is made LAW. Too late for them to have any input at all into the process.
5. Overclaims throughout the report
This report relies on the same misused argument that the national anti-incarceration movement has used consistently – that the frontal lobe of the brain does not fully form into the 20’s and that culpability is not possible with less than fully formed neo-cortexes. To better understand how they have misused that research on the brain, read the neurological study Brain Overclaim Syndrome. It explains the faulty reasoning in connecting frontal lobe development with punishment and culpability.
If their misuse of the brain argument were true, we would all be mass murderers but for our frontal lobes. And of course we are not. There are many components to the human psyche and human development is complex. Many factors play into a person’s culpability for behavior, and for committing crimes.
Why do we ever punish our children? To help them learn and grow – that’s why. Because actions have consequences. Because sometimes you need to be removed from the rest of us when you are out of control. Because you need to understand there are limits. Because you need to learn right from wrong. Most of all we know that every child – every person – develops differently. Some are more mature, some less at a given age. Some have better reasoning, some less. Some have better judgment, some have less. And culpability is not determined by chronological age, but by the developmental advances of that individual person.
The killer in our family’s case was fully and completely culpable. He was not in any way “categorically less culpable”. And in private conversations with the offender advocates in Illinois they told me that they agree about the offender in my family’s case – that he is extremely dangerous and should never get out.
We found it to be outrageous that the offender advocates who wrote this report said that there was a significant “problem” with juveniles sentenced to natural life for crimes committed as “accomplices” only – sentenced under accountability theory.
Accomplices are culpable and liable for all the outcomes of a crime they knowingly and willingly participate in.
All states and the Federal government, including Illinois law, holds accomplices and offenders equally culpable – no matter the age.
Just one problem- they could only document one case, Marsha Allen, and there were no other examples of or documentation of inappropriate accomplice sentencing actually happening. One researcher told us that they couldn’t actually find any of those cases.
So why are they talking about the accomplice issue in the media and in the report in their attempts to discredit the sentence?
A final significant concern is the way the report mischaracterizes what is happening in other states about the JLWOP sentence: in fact the report says on careful reading that only one state, Colorado, has acted to abolish the sentence – and that state not retroactively – only prospectively. And the prospective changes provide for the first parole review to not happen for FORTY years. And what the report does not tell the reader is about the bitter and divisive debate that has ensued in Colorado for years, and where retroactive changes to the sentences served by the 45 JLWOP prisoners was not done because it was incredibly problematic for a long list of reasons. Retroactive changes in sentences are a significantly different matter than prospective changes. The activists there at the Pendulum Foundation have been very supportive of me and the position that NOVJL has taken for victims to be treated like stakeholders. In it, they advise the advocates of the Illinois “Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children” to work with victims such as us, to accept prospective changes in sentencing, and to not fall into the trap of creating opposition in the murder victims’ families of these offenders, but instead to do the hard work of listening to and working with victims’ families, something that the Illinois advocates have yet to even attempt, but should have before publishing the report. We have never opposed prospective changes in sentencing laws because they are not a victims rights issue. And a review after 40 years is not the problem for victims families that the proposal by the authors of this report – that offenders sentenced to life for murder or mass murder get a review for release at 10 years and every 2 years after that- just a nutty proposition. A 17 sentenced to life getting out when he is 27? And he is not going to still be dangerous?
Finances – why doesn’t this report take some responsibility for the massive costs they are proposing for Illinois taxpayers – to create a brand new parole bureaucracy (something the state wisely discarded in favor of determinate sentencing in 1978) – all to help these cases of guilty multiple murderers get regular reviews that even the report’s authors admit would not nor should not result in them being released for the most part. This is not sound public policy.
Also, simply because other states, less than 10, have proposed bills to reform JLWOP does not mean the “tide is turning” as the report champions. It does not take the support of more than one legislator to file a bill. It does not provide any evidence for a groundswell.
In fact, those states don’t have, in most cases, even close to the number of votes needed in their legislatures to pass such legislation. California’s proposals were just soundly defeated. Other states are not, as the report claims, “changing their laws” as if this is some trend. Bills in any state that propose to abolish JLWOP, or any other broad systemic criminal justice reform would need broad bi-partisan coalitions to pass – something that is very difficult to accomplish politically. Advocates in Illinois are off to a bad start in their one-sided approach if that is their ultimate goal.
And so members of the Coalition who rushed to legislation before the long hard work of education and outreach to victims and the public was even attempted, have done not only the victims, but the offenders they say they are advocating for, a real disservice. They have turned victims into adversaries. They have discredited a responsibly conceived effort by being unwilling to have the hard, open listening conversations needed to build bridges of understanding strong enough to cross the gaps formed by violent crime. They have tried and failed to win our sympathy for what really is just a tragic, tragic situation – young people willing and able to kill so many, so easily.
A PAGE BY PAGE COMMENTARY ON THE REPORT:
Ed note: If the author’s had brought a final draft of this report to us before publication, we would have offered these same thoughts and helped them to write a better report.
Regarding the note about the use of photographs throughout the report – they acknowledge that there are photos of both Illinois JLWOPers and also “other children” and there is no labeling in the report which is which. Very propagandistic. Especially when photos throughout show such young offenders – most of the JLWOPers now are well into 20’s, 30,s 40s.
They thank the “victims families” who they talked to in the writing of the report. Though we hope they talked to others, we know only that they talked to Jeanne and Jennifer Bishop, my family. If they talked to others, they deliberately did not tell us and we think that is horrible, if it is true. If they did not talk to others, they should not imply by their wording that they talked to many victims families.
The few victims families we have found through our own efforts with NO assistance from the writers of this report have never talked to any of these researchers. They were shocked to hear about it, as we were, and deeply grateful to us for finding them. The disruption and time that this has cost our lives is staggering in its breadth. But we find the new relationships we have gained in the process to be nothing but a gift and truly joyous for us.
But this “thank you” to us on page three is more painful than if they had just left it out. The “constructive dialogue” called for here is what we have TRIED to do all along and have been thwarted at every turn. Now that the report is released we have not been contacted for the follow-up we were promised. We have not begun a dialogue, and the “recommendations fashioned” do not at all account for our concerns.
If you want to thank us, members of the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children (ICFSC), find and inform all the victims families. It is never too late to choose to do the right thing.
But that has still not happened, years after the release of the report.
Re: The quotation on the picture of the sad looking young inmate that says “How can you say someone can’t change?”
We cannot dismiss strongly enough the assertion of the report that concluding that truly guilty and duly processed aggravated murderers should serve their entire sentences somehow means that we don’t think they can change.
Many of us victims family members strongly support Restorative Justice and rehabilitation.
Of course people can change, and more than anyone who wrote and supported this report, WE wish that these killers would change.
If for one moment the ICFSC would walk a mile in our shoes, I am sure they could figure out the depth and truth of that.
This is the first place the report names 13 year olds as being able to receive this LWOP sentence and it is done in several places in the report. Only once does it mention that NONE HAVE.
Also, from the start, the report assumes that the arguments used before the Supreme Court regarding the juvenile death penalty should and could also be applied to juvenile LWOP. That is of course an intellectually dishonest argument, as the penalties are strikingly different. To be able to apply the same legal reasoning to LWOP cases as to the death penalty, huge bodies of research and public consensus would have to be achieved, and actually given the differences between the two penalties, we sincerely believe that this will never happen.
Also, this page uses the word “consensus” to refer to their growing views that juveniles should not be sentenced to life. They need to look up the word consensus again, and also broaden the circle of people they talk to.
The only consensus we see in our nation is that guilty and heinously aggravated murders should spend their lives in prison, if not out and our be executed.
Finally, this page obfuscates the issue of Colorado “abolishing outright” the JLWOP sentence. In fact what Colorado did very minimal. They made only prospective changes, not retroactive, as the ICFSC advocates (which is by the way so legally problematic as to assure that it will never happen in Illinois); AND only after 40 years served of the sentence before a parole review, a virtual life sentence in any case; AND in a state that already has parole, which Illinois does not. To cite Colorado in support of their report actually only services the position that this website takes on the issue.
Where the report cites things such as marriage and alcohol consumption as examples of how laws are different about children, we have two responses. First, of course, which is why the varying age limits for different things only supports our position that culpability and responsibility varies depending on what you are talking about. So second, we point out the obvious – MURDER is very different.
Murder is different than marrying, drinking, etc. Duh.
My two daughters knew when they were 6 that it was wrong to kill, however. There is no reasonable argument that can be made that these juvenile killers did not know what they were doing was wrong, unless they were severely mentally ill, in which case they would not receive this sentence anyway.
And unless they can show that these killings were done on impulse (since they cite impulse control as a brain issue) then culpability does not change. The killer in my family’s case plotted the murder for months, very carefully. He even practiced the skills he used that night. It was not an impulse and he knew it was wrong and he was not mentally ill, and he tortured and murdered an innocent pregnant woman and her husband. The three LWOP sentences he received were the right sentence for him.
Re: Parole as an incentive to change – we repeat as above, no one is saying these younger killers can’t and shouldn’t change. They should and they must, though many will not. But to link their situations to a constant argument for parole, which really has little connection to their changing, or not changing, process does this whole issue a real disservice.
The authors of this report are wearing blinders that are not allowing them to see what else is out there.
MANY other conclusions are possible when looking at reform and societal responses to the lives in prison of younger killers.
Also on this page, another call to dialogue with victims.
How can they ethically call on legislators to do something they themselves have refused to do?
Re: “the law simply dictates that if the child commits one of the crimes outlined in the statute, he or she is beyond redemption and is not entitled to a second chance – ever.”
Two major things wrong with this sentence. First, most of the cases of JLWOP the killer had an earlier record, and had many second chances. Some of them have been repeat murderers. Some of them were out on bond for juvenile violent crimes and committed these heinous crimes after already being released for other offenses, or while waiting trial. If they had actually published the facts of all the 103 cases, second chances would not be on the table as a serious point of contention in this discussion. Second, to use the spiritually-laden term “redemption” to refer to what LWOP means is simply wrong and hurtful.
Redemption for these killers? I pray for it, daily.
Redemption for the victims’ families? We all need to work for it.
But serving their sentences for these crimes has nothing to do with their redemption.
The report implies that judges are asking for more and lesser options when sentencing these killers. We know of many JLWOP cases where the judges affirmed strongly that this was indeed the right sentence, and further, some expressed the desire to do worse in terms of punishment, given the facts of their crimes.
We know of only one – Judge Dwyer in the Marshan Allen case, that asked for that option. If there were more judges and more cases, we feel sure this report would have made a BIG deal out of that.
And the report on this very page PROVES that the courts and appeals can work to correct this sentence. The Supreme Court of Illinois overturned this sentence in People v Miller case. And Marshan Allen and Charles Green got new hearings because of it. The appeals system can work and should be made to continue to work even better.
Just because other JLWOP cases have not gotten new trials does not mean it isn’t working. It could just mean that the cases were not deserving, as we generally suspect.
Also, there is a logical flaw in the wording of this particular argument – the Miller case specifies a JLWOPer who was only an accomplice, sentenced under accountability theory. Then the report implies that all 103 JLWOPers should be given new trials because of the Miller ruling.
This was a significant point in the course of our discussions with the ICFSC over the last year – how many JLWOPers were sentenced under accountability? They thought at first, they told us, there could be many. But they reported to us at the end of the study there were very few.
Of course, NO specifics have been forthcoming. The ICFSC only gives specifics when it supports their argument.
But since we now have had affirmed by their study that in most of these cases only the actual killer is the one serving the sentence, we are confident that we can have a more reasoned discussion about what the laws should be for accountability going forward.
And we also note, there is accountability, and then there is accountability. There is the Marshan Allen, just along for the ride who did not know what was happening inside the house. And then there is the older gang banger who hands the gun to the younger gang member and orders him to kill the innocent victim. In that case, accountability is MORE serious than the “trigger man” in terms of culpability.
So the laws about accountability need to be VERY carefully reviewed, if that is what they wish to make their case about. But to blur the lines in their report is not helpful.
The report says “clemency is not the answer” because it is rarely granted and there is a backlog of cases.
They said this, we suspect, because in our meetings with them we said often that this was in fact the solution prescribed in our nation’s laws and Constitutions, state and federal, regarding the check and balance for a system not working as it should.
In fact, clemency SHOULD be rarely granted. It should be exceptional, extraordinary, and only when all other branches of government have failed thoroughly and utterly, which is sometimes the case.
And the backlog issue has two very much easier solutions than bringing back a parole system to Illinois that is very costly, hugely discriminatory, wildly ineffective, and horrifically traumatic on victims families. First, fewer inmates should apply. They should self regulate to only apply if they are truly deserving. Instead they apply whenever they can because they have little else to do. We need to give them better things to do. Second, the backlog should be addressed politically and through public education at the Governors’ or President’s desks, throughout the nation.
It would be far easier to mount a public education campaign about how and why clemency should be working more efficiently as a system in our nation than it would EVER be to build the political case necessary to free these younger killers duly sentenced to life.
We strongly urge the ICFSC to take up that campaign.
RE the quotation on p 13 from Kentrell S – “I am America’s child. You made this and now don’t sweep it under the rug” – I have two observations.
First, we can’t tell from one quotation but the theme in this report is not to address responsibly the issue of accountability by these killers. It does not help to build their case to make excuses for what they have done, and to try to pass off blame. Quite the contrary, the more the advocates for the JLWOPers learn to address what the killers are responsible for, and the more they can begin the restorative justice dialogue about acknowledging harm and working for restitution, the better off they will all be.
Second, we agree – there is something VERY wrong with our nation on this issue. We see the level of violence committed regularly by the young people in this nation to be alarming beyond words. Especially because it is NOT seen in other nations. Lets take, just for example, Finland. Why aren’t there juveniles committing aggravating murders? Could it be because they don’t have the NRA, the gun industry, and the easy access to ridiculous levels of firearms? Could it be because they have good education, jobs training, health care, welfare, and a responsible view of how to build a community where all are valued and problems are addressed collectively by the government that the people are invested in? Could it be that they know prevention is the answer and that the USA has not figured that out yet?
I would assert that my personal work to keep guns away from kids in our nation does more to keep young people away from serving a JLWOP sentence than anything that the authors of this report are doing. I invite them to join my work in that area if they really want to stop young people from serving life sentences. And they could support Fight Crime Invest in Kids as I do. And they could support the Victim Impact Panel programs for the Cook County Juvenile Probation program that does more to take young first offenders and help to turn them around than most any program in the nation.
RE the inset box on page 13 lower left – the age of “juveniles” in Illinois is 17, not 18, and yet they use this as their demarkation line in the report.
This is problematic for several reasons – first there is NO consensus nationally about the age line – it is widely different all over the nation. They should work for federal consistency if they think this is an issue.
However, clearly a reason they include 17 year olds in this report is because it bolsters their numbers and makes the problem look bigger. There would only be just over 50 JLWOPers without the 17 year olds.
But in Illinois the 17 year olds are ALREADY criminally adults anyway. And while the ICFSC supports bills to raise that law, it will not be happening in Springfield any time soon because 17 year olds make up the bulk of the crimes and they are a huge expense criminally. If the age is raised to 18, then all 17 year old criminals become the responsibility of the County Governments in the state. None of them can afford this and they are all fighting it for that reason.
This report takes liberal leaps with the law when including 17 year olds in this report when it briefly acknowledges “for the purposes of this report” they are defining juvenile criminals where they want to – under 18 – instead of addressing the laws in Illinois and many states as they are.