Reconsidering Life Sentences for Juveniles Who Kill

In the 1993 book Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean tells the story of people directly impacted by capital punishment -- convicted murderers counting down to their own executions, wardens and guards dutifully operating the machinery of death, and victims who are consumed by rage and grief.

Prejean's book, upon which the popular movie was based, is much more than a memoir. Well-researched and annotated, it carefully explores the legal, ethical, and philosophical issues raised by the most controversial form of punishment in the United States. But the power of the book comes from its candor -- from the fact that Prejean began her journey without a clear perspective or opinion on the death penalty.

I read Dead Man Walking when it was first published. I had recently graduated from law school and was clerking for an appellate court judge. Although only vaguely interested in criminal law, I finished it quickly, engrossed by Prejean's account of her experiences as a spiritual adviser for men on death row and moved by her struggle to find common ground with the families of victims.

I thought of this last weekend after reading Ethan Bronner's article in The New York Times on reactions to Miller v. Alabama, the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders are unconstitutional. With over 2,000 offenders across the country who may be resentenced as a result of Miller, Bronner focused on a single case -- a pregnant teen killed by her 15-year-old boyfriend -- and he prominently featured an interview with the victim's sister, Bobbi Jamriska, who is active in the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers.

Unlike Prejean's book but typical of most coverage of criminal sentencing, the Times article explicitly pits juveniles serving life sentences against victims' families; it asserts without attribution that the decision in Miller threw "thousands" like Jamriska into "anguished turmoil at the prospect that the killers of their loved ones may walk the streets again." Such hyperbole only perpetuates the notion that the ideal resolution is always to warehouse young offenders -- without opportunity for review of their sentences -- forever.

I do respect Mr. Bronner's work, but I don't agree with the way he handled this piece and I told him so.

In response to my email, he wrote in part:

"... For some reason, you took the article to be an endorsement of Ms. Jamriska's perspective. It was an attempt to put a strong case forward for both sides in this issue -- that of the juvenile offender and the brain science that says juveniles must be judged differently from adults, and that of the victim's family. It was important to me to represent both sides. I'm sorry it didn't come across that way to you."

Fair enough, yet contrast this with a recent video from the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, in which parents of murder victims express sympathy for juvenile offenders and, ultimately, forgiveness. One mother, Mary Johnson, related that it was healing to watch O'Shea Israel, the youth who had killed her son 20 years earlier, develop into a respectable adult after his release from prison. As the two stood side by side, Johnson explained, "He's not that 16-year-old boy that has taken my son's life. He's now a man. He's turned his life around, and I know it's genuine."

Jamriska and others have voiced a legitimate concern that post-Miller resentencing hearings will force victims' families to "relive the horrors again." One option is for these hearings to be narrowly focused on the offender - the youth's background, the circumstances of the crime, and his or her role in the offense -- rather than publicly reexamining the pain and loss experienced by the victims. Another option is for victim impact statements and other documentary evidence introduced at the original sentencing hearing to be considered anew, making it unnecessary for the victims' families to be physically present in court. Although hardly perfect, such procedures may provide the first steps toward an acceptable solution.

An additional issue may be addressed through reasoned discussion and education. In the Times article, Jamriska repeats a common refrain heard among victims and others who oppose the reconsideration of life sentences for youth: "I don't care if you're 5 or 50, you know that killing is wrong" -- with the implication being that as long as an offender understood the wrongfulness of the act, the punishment should be the same regardless of his or her age.

Yet, there's a difference between capacity and culpability. Yes, most adolescents understand intellectually that to kill another human being is wrong. That is precisely why we condemn it and punish those who commit it. But because of the lesser culpability or blameworthiness of young offenders, the punishment should not be as harsh as it is for adults.

By the end of Dead Man Walking, Prejean's story has come full circle. She begins her narrative suspicious and judgmental of the men on death row; she sees only their brutal crimes, not the human beings behind them. Once she has connected with them, however, she is conflicted and avoids their victims. Prejean finds peace only after she has reached out to those victims, met with and listened to them -- and they to her.

In the wake of the Miller decision, we must be sensitive to victims' families and try to understand their desire for retribution -- but at the same time we must emphasize that imprisoning juveniles for life is not the answer.

The words of Mary Johnson, who befriended O'Shea Israel, continue to resonate:

"The young people that have been given life without parole - we need to think about them as though they are our children. Give them the opportunity -- if they've been worked on in the prison and have worked on themselves -- give them the opportunity to come out and prove themselves, as O'Shea has done."

Sister Helen Prejean would agree. Perhaps one day Bobbi Jamriska will as well.

Professor Birckhead's commentary is also posted at the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

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