Crime Doesn’t Work, the Law Does
What works for all of us is to be safe, healthy – it’s that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” thing. Societies throughout human history have made laws to protect their members. And when individuals have violated those laws, society has had to create ways to deal with them.
No one likes that there are criminals. No one likes having to punish or isolate errants from our midst. Some blame nature, some blame nurture. Most experts know that both are factors. And it’s important to understand when discussing crime why most people who come from incredibly bad circumstances live perfectly moral and positive lives, and often some people with the most privileged of lives commit the most horrific crimes.
Crime and criminals and violent dangerous behavior cut across all lines – geographic, demographic, socio-economic, religion, age, race, gender.
In many fundamental ways, those on the fringe of society, those who break the law – whether influenced by their environment or their own natural tendencies – like all people in the world, ARE a part of the human community. That is why many of us who are crime victims are also human rights advocates.
Nothing works better or is more important for us to collectively prioritize than violence and crime prevention programs. Data-driven epidemiological approaches are actually interdicting violence on the streets before it happens. Fight Crime Invest In Kids uses evidence-based only approaches to promoting programs that work to prevent violence, such as Teen Reach and Head Start programs. It costs far less to us all, both in human and economic toll, to prevent crime than to deal with it after it happens. Smart people and smart money focuses on prevention. Prevention works.
If we fail to prevent crime, we have to cope with its aftermath. All human societies since after humanity stopped living as nomads or hunter-gatherers have adopted forms of rehabilitation and punishment that include incarceration, isolation, banishment, execution, torture, corporal punishment, restorative justice, restitution, re-education, community service, and a wide range of penal programs. In the modern era penal institutions are safe, humane, and provide basic health care, food, shelter, and even self-improvement opportunities for all prisoners. All human institutions are flawed because they are human, but we also have many tried, true, and effective practices that have worked very well for us collectively and individually throughout history.
People can debate what forms of punishment work well and what does not. We know that sadly, rarely, some people are just not capable of ever walking safely among us. Controversial as the higher incarceration rates of the USA in the 1990’s have been, they definitely resulted in much lower crime rates, to this day. Taking dangerous offenders off the streets does make us safer – of that there is no doubt. Incarceration works.
When the System Makes Mistakes
Just as we know that life sentences do need to be available for the worst violent offenders among us, we also know that the criminal justice system makes mistakes. We have stated repeatedly that we do not support incarceration of the innocent, and we do know that wrongful convictions happen. We also know that the system has been over-punitive in some cases, especially in non-violent crime. And therefore we recognize that offender advocates often have legitimate concerns for the need for criminal justice reform.
What Works To Address Those Mistakes
The criminal justice system is not a monolith. It is made up of millions of individual cases. Case by case by case – that is how justice or injustice happens.
But to retroactively require murder victims’ families to spend a lifetime of torture in the parole process in order to correct a few mistakes in the sentencing of violent teens, forever depriving them of legal finality, is no human rights improvement. You simply trade one human rights violation for another, one life sentence for another.
Injustice has to be corrected case by case, as our Constitution provides. And our system of checks and balances generally works well. Legislatures set the crimes and punishments, Executive branch agencies carry out the sentences, and the Judicial system evaluates each case in the system.
Every offender gets appeals. Presidents and Governors can and do give clemency. New trials and new sentencing hearings are granted and do change outcomes in cases.
We urge juvenile advocates, while devoting much more time to learning about and helping victims, to work case by case to address miscarriages of justice. Retroactively changing ALL sentences in a category to address a few miscarriages of justice is like plowing up the whole field to get out a few weeds.
Examples of Corrected Mistakes
Two cases in Illinois (and there are many more) illustrate that the system can work with effective defense for those accused. First, recently Mark Clements was released after serving many years in prison, sentenced to life as a 16 year old, for a crime he did not commit – setting his own house on fire and killing his family. We supported Mark’s release before it happened as consensus emerged that he did not commit the crime, and even those who worked to convict him supported his release. Mark is out now, free, working and living in Chicago. He is with his family and works full time to help others wrongfully convicted.
Another good example is Marshan Allen. In this case it was not innocence at issue, but oversentencing for his relatively minor role in the horrible crime. He was convicted and sentenced to natural life under felony murder statutes that hold accomplices equally accountable for the crimes. We believe that is a correct legal principle, but there are varying degrees of accomplices depending on the facts of the crimes. Marshan had no knowledge of, or planning in, any murder. He stole a van so that his older brother and a gang member could collect a drug money debt. He deserves punishment and after serving a long sentence, he had a chance for release and has since been released.
In 2010 Marshan had won a new sentencing hearing, and he was given a much lesser sentence. We supported this outcome, again, because we know that life sentences are for the worst, most violent offenders. Accomplices can be on that list, especially if they were instigators of a murder, or supplied a weapon. Point taken: Legislative proposals by juvenile advocates are not working and are a huge drain for thousands of people. This is what works – case by case.
In California, departing Governor Schwarzenegger commuted the sentence of teen killer Sara Kruzan, showing another way that the system can work to correct itself without retroactive parole legislation. See our press release.
The Colorado Model
Colorado is a state that changed its teen killer sentencing laws. When Colorado abolished JLWOP it did it in the following way:
- It changed the life sentences for teens killers only prospectively, not retroactively, thereby not violating any victims’ rights or due process issues
- It kept a long initial sentence of 40 years before the first parole review, and then parole reviews were only every 5 years – less traumatizing for victims and less expensive for the system, and better protection for public safety.
- It set up a special juvenile clemency commission to examine the other 45 current cases of teen killers sentenced to life – juvenile life without parole – as adults. That allowed a few egregious cases of over-sentencing, as always occur throughout the criminal justice system, to be addressed while giving the Governor special “political cover”, knowing how politically difficult clemencies can be.
This system works. Read:
Colorado Governor commutes sentences of some convicted murderers, through his special clemency commission.
The First California Model
California only sentenced teen killers ages 16 and 17 to natural life. This is absolutely the age group that even juvenile advocates have identified as the age of most teen killers sentenced to life – approximately 88% of all cases. The numbers of these cases drops off dramatically nationally at 15 and under. So the California “bright lines” made sense.
And each juvenile offender facing transfer to adult criminal court in extremely aggravated and heinous crimes, including murders with “special circumstances” have extra layers of hearings to make their case before and after their transfer to criminal court that they belong strictly in the juvenile justice system. Case by case, everyone gets more than one day in court – they get many opportunities.
California’s system worked. The Governor commuted, and Appellate Judges overturned sentences. And people are kept safe from the most dangerous offenders among us.
In 2017 California enacted legislation allowing all juvenile criminals under 18 to seek parole after 25 years.
A California Judge reduces the sentences of two teen killers