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Life without parole: Child prisoners in the US
August 10, 2008 9:46 AM   Subscribe

"In the US, there are 2,270 prisoners [report, news release, with testimonies] who were sentenced as children to life without parole. They will die behind bars. Ed Pilkington asks five of them - from a 21-year-old to a 70-year-old - how do they cope?"

Related: as of 2005, executions of prisoners for crimes committed as children is no longer permissible in the United States.
posted by flibbertigibbet (57 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sad beyond sad. And I know a lot of people in the US and elsewhere get a great deal of enjoyment when they think about people suffering in jail. Sad, sad, sad.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:03 AM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


He was 16 when, on December 2 1953, he walked up to the house of an old couple he knew well, Robert and Celeste Holton. He said he only intended to steal from the couple but things got out of control. He picked up a deer rifle that happened to be standing by their refrigerator. Afterwards, he said he didn't know what came over him, why he emptied the whole cartridge and killed them both.
So poor Allen Smith will never see life outside of prision walls again. Guess what? Robert and Celeste Holton will never see the light of day again, period.

Just about all murderers are remorseful once they've been arrested and sentenced. If these criminals had never been caught, would they still feel guilty? Or gleeful that they'd gotten away with it? There's a difference between shoplifting and pulling the trigger on someone. Even a 12-year-old knows the difference between life and death, that you can't bring someone back after you've killed them. I find it hard to dismiss cold-blooded murder as a childish mistake.
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:09 AM on August 10, 2008 [20 favorites]


Yeah, I'm going to be pretty irritated if I'm ever victimized by a convicted murderer.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 10:13 AM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


"She gets up at 4am to work in the kitchen. She does a 40-hour week, earning 18 cents an hour. When she asked the prison authorities if she could take a business vocational course, she was turned down on the grounds that as she will never be set free there is no point learning skills geared to rejoining the outside."

Part of me wants to think that the possible exploitation of cheap labor has no relation to sentencing laws. The rest just hurts.


Also, if 15% of the population is black, what are the odds of two consecutive juries, one with 0/12 and one with 1/12 black people?
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 10:14 AM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


This fucked up:
Dupure insists she was not in the apartment at all, but waited in the restaurant, oblivious to the events unfolding, while Blevins went off on his own. What is certain is that Blevins murdered the old woman, stabbing her several times and strangling her. Under police questioning he admitted it, saying he acted alone. But shortly before he went on trial he changed his evidence and put Dupure alongside him at the scene of the murder. In return, the prosecution agreed he should be given the lesser charge of second-degree murder and avoid lifelong incarceration. Under cross-examination, he conceded to the jury, "I never had intentions to pin it on her until I ran out of options."

Blevins got 20 to 50 years, with the hope of reducing his sentence through good behaviour. Dupure got life without parole, with no forensic evidence tying her to the crime and entirely on the strength of Blevins' testimony.
A different case:
On the night of the murder, Boyd's mother, high on drugs, met him at a Burger King and asked him for the keys to his father's flat, saying she was going to kill him. He handed over the keys. The next morning Boyd went to his father's flat and, hearing no one inside, forced open the door. Kevin senior was slumped in his easy chair. He had been bludgeoned with a baseball bat and stabbed 23 times.

Boyd was interrogated by police for eight hours. He told them he had handed over the keys and that was all. Then a second team of officers questioned him. They turned off the tape recorder, and kept repeating to him the mantra, "The truth will set you free."

"Every time I tried to tell them what happened, they shouted me down. 'No, you didn't do that!' This sounds totally irrational, I know, but after hours of that, I thought if I told them what they wanted they would let me out and it would all go away." He confessed to having been the one to stab his father 23 times, and was given life without parole.
Even more:
Donald Logan. Prisoner 132850. Height: 5ft 5in. Weight: 135lb. Date of birth: June 23 1954. He was tried and convicted twice for the murder of a paperboy, Thomas Eldridge, who went to his school. They were both 16. At the first trial, Logan, who is black, was found guilty by 12 white jurors. His lawyers appealed on the grounds that the racial composition of the jury was prejudicial, and a retrial was ordered. In the second trial there were 11 white jurors, including two who were members of whites-only organisations. The 12th juror was black, but during the course of the hearing it emerged that she was the aunt of the prosecution's key witness who was giving evidence against Logan in exchange for a reduced sentence.

Logan's case illustrates two key statistics about juvenile life without parole. Of the 307 prisoners in Michigan on that sentence, 69% are black, compared with 15% of the state's population as a whole. A study by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty also found that more than one in four of the juveniles incarcerated for ever was convicted of "felony murder" - serious crimes during which someone is killed yet where the juvenile did not personally or directly cause the death.

The prosecution case against Logan was that he identified the paperboy to a gang of his elder brother's friends who had robbed Eldridge the previous week and wanted to prevent him giving evidence against them. Logan was alleged to have acted as lookout when two of the gang members shot the boy. It was never alleged he had pulled the trigger himself or even held a gun. "I killed nobody," Logan said. "The guys asked me who was the paperboy. I was the one who pointed him out. That's all I did."
Yeah, I'm speechless.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:28 AM on August 10, 2008 [7 favorites]


This fucked up:

Let's see, what do those stories have in common?

Oh wait, I see: we're supposed to take the word of a convicted murderer who still holds out hope for being paroled someday instead of looking at the actual evidence that convinced the jury.

The prisons are full of people who didn't do it.
posted by tkolar at 10:32 AM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also, if 15% of the population is black, what are the odds of two consecutive juries, one with 0/12 and one with 1/12 black people?
If the population being selected from is 15% black, and the selection is done without bias with regards to "black or not":

The chance of any particular jury being all-non-black is about 14%. About one out of every seven juries would be this way.

The chance of any particular jury having exactly one black member is about 30%. About one out of every three juries would be this way.

The chance of any particular jury having one or less black members is approximately 44%. About half of all juries would be this way.

The chance of any particular pair of juries having (between them) one or less black members is approximately 10%. About one out of every ten pairs of juries would be this way.
posted by Flunkie at 10:32 AM on August 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


Oriole Adams, what's the point of prison?

If a murderer feels true remorse over what he's done and is no longer any threat to society, why should he/she still be in prison? You can argue that life without parole/capitol punishment/whatever will deter others from making the same mistake but I don't think that's certain.

Imprisonment simply for punishment's sake makes little sense to me. If you're a believer in spanking, and your kid does something wrong, do you give him a smack on the ass? Sure, I guess. But why keep hitting him, unless it's for sadistic glee?

The people selected by Pilkington, and I'd argue much of the child lifers in general, come from troubled backgrounds. Imprison them, stabilize their lives via education and a harsh environment, then let them go.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 10:34 AM on August 10, 2008 [4 favorites]


Even a 12-year-old knows the difference between life and death, that you can't bring someone back after you've killed them.

Quotes from the article, about various cases.

"He realised only a few years into his sentence that he would stay in jail for ever. "

"At the trial, a psychologist who examined Logan said that though he was 17 by then, he had the level of understanding of a 12-year-old. The pre-sentence investigation described him as being "a failure in almost everything he ever tried" and he was labelled a "retard"."

"Matthew's childhood was as you might expect in the circumstances. He was a straight E grade student. He was regularly suspended for truancy and often in trouble with police. He started smoking dope aged 10. He was in and out of children's homes, and at the time he murdered Bardell he was on Zoloft for depression and Dexedrine for hyperactivity."

Have you ever raised a 12 year old? Even one from a well adjusted family isn't fully mentally developed at that age. Whatever crime they commit, they should be punished, but arguing that they knew and understood their actions isn't as black and white as you think.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:34 AM on August 10, 2008 [3 favorites]


Thanks Flunkie. I figured it was relatively likely, but was curious.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 10:35 AM on August 10, 2008


Oh wait, I see: we're supposed to take the word of a convicted murderer who still holds out hope for being paroled someday instead of looking at the actual evidence that convinced the jury.

Isn't that exactly what happened in the first scenario?
posted by Donnie VandenBos at 10:39 AM on August 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


Oh wait, I see: we're supposed to take the word of a convicted murderer who still holds out hope for being paroled someday instead of looking at the actual evidence that convinced the jury.

Please read the article, so you can see how shoddy some of the evidence is.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:41 AM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Remember, this is the result of mandatory sentencing. The judge's hands are tied. Legislators push for mandatory sentencing laws to show the public that they are being tough on crime. Try and imagine a family member, like your child, or yourself getting caught up in something similar.

Locked away for life for pointing out the paper boy.
posted by captainsohler at 10:42 AM on August 10, 2008 [3 favorites]


The science is clear that teenagers' brains don't function right, that the don't make the connections in the same way as adults. To lock up kids for life--some of whom are convicted only on the word of another with a motive to lie--is ridiculous. I'm not some softhearted liberal who thinks everyone in jail is innocent or that some convicts won't kill again.

But to throw away the key on kids who themselves never had a chance at a normal life, deny them education or any hope at all, is disgusting. And as far as taking "confessions" from kids--I know of two cases, one in Connecticut in the 1970s, one on Long Island in the early '90s, where teenagers were bullied into confessing parental murders after hours and hours of questioning. They "confessed" to make the questioning stop. We as a nation should be able to do better than this.
posted by etaoin at 10:42 AM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oriole Adams-
Research in neuroscience indicates that the adolescent brain is a different animal than the adult brain-- Quite literally, the neural development necessary for impulse control just hasn't happened yet at 15 or 16 years of age.
posted by BundleOfHers at 10:44 AM on August 10, 2008


He said he only intended to steal from the couple but things got out of control.

When I notice that the writer is making passive and intransitive verbs work hard in a recounting of the subject's side of the story, I become less inclined to sympathy. Still, I am no fan of the over-punitive tendencies of American criminal justice, and won't attempt to defend them, or say that I am certain all of these people, assuming they were rightfully convicted, deserve to have been sentenced to life.

It's just that, the way this is written, there are huge unanswered questions about the kids here who were apparently railroaded. For example, what became of Kevin, Jr.'s mother in court, if she had so much motive?
posted by Countess Elena at 10:50 AM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


But to throw away the key on kids who themselves never had a chance at a normal life, deny them education or any hope at all, is disgusting.

Don't limit your outrage to kids who are serving life sentences. There are lots of adults who are serving life sentences who, once you look at the facts of their cases, shouldn't spend the rest of their lives in jail, who didn't have a chance at a normal life, etc.

Personally, any outrage I may have had at people serving long sentences in the U.S. has been spent. It's a cost of living in the kind of country we live in. We'd have to completely change our political and economic system, raise taxes dramatically, and totally revamp the way people are educated and trained for work, and change attitudes about public assistance and poverty, in order to eliminate stories like the ones featured in this post.
posted by jayder at 11:02 AM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wikipedia's Ages of criminal responsibility by country

Says that the US federal age is 10 with some states going as low as 6. Lists Australia, England, and Wales as 10 as well and Scotland as 8. (All without citations, grr... okay, the UK ones are corroborated here)
posted by XMLicious at 11:08 AM on August 10, 2008


Jayder, I agree with you; it's just that the cases of the teenagers are particularly compelling.
I wish TV would stop acting like cops--the cable shows on prison life are filled with lunatic prisoners, the guards displaying the captured weapons of inmates, very, very pro-authority reporting. That is not to say that what they show isn't legitimate; it's just that they never show you the other side. And TV cop shows used to always tell the story of juveniles who were free to walk away the minute they turned 18 or 21. I have never seen a story focused on a teen going away for life.

If you followed the case of the Central Park jogger story, with the teenagers--admittedly, many were petty criminals already--you'd never believe a confession again. Ditto the Peter Reilly case in Connecticut. Or the Marty Tankleff story on Long Island, where one of the lead cops investigating him for the killings of his parents later went into business with Tankleff's half sister, who, because of his conviction, became the only beneficiary of their substantial estate. How in the hell is that possible?
posted by etaoin at 11:12 AM on August 10, 2008


jayder, then do so. "It would be hard to do" isn't much of a defense.

Besides, if you had those prisoners working and paying taxes, wouldn't that sorta mitigate the cost of education? (not to mention the money you'd save on prisons)
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 11:18 AM on August 10, 2008


Please read the article, so you can see how shoddy some of the evidence is.

I read the article. I saw what was referred to as "the evidence".

If that really was all the evidence presented at these trials, they were the shortest murder trials in the history of the planet. But I can tell you of course that it wasn't: the author had a pretty clear axe to grind and chose to include only what they thought would make their case.

I think it should be a standard in judicial reporting to include links to the trial transcripts.

There's a lot to be said for why life imprisonment is a bad idea, but this article isn't it.
posted by tkolar at 11:18 AM on August 10, 2008


Mandatory sentencing and private prisons go hand in hand. I know for quite a while in Michigan (I don't know if it's currently the case), the prison industry was the only growing industry in the state. Right now, over 1 in 100 Americans are in prison.

Older article from 1999

A great recent report on the growth of the prison population in the United states (PDF).

This Alien Life: Privatized Prisons for Immigrants
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:33 AM on August 10, 2008


...see how shoddy some of the evidence is.

And let's be clear here, the "some" in question only applies to the Dupure case. Unfortunately the county in question only keeps case summaries online, so we can't see all of what presented.

All of the other cases mentioned in the article had signed confessions.
posted by tkolar at 11:40 AM on August 10, 2008


In a study of 328 wrongful convictions in the U.S., Gross, Jacoby, Matheson, Montgomery, and Patil (2005) found that 44% of juveniles provided a false confession when compared with only 13% of adults in the sample. Among the youngest, those 12 to 15 years of age, the incidence of false confession rose to 75%.

From here.

tkolar, even if they did it, why do you feel that young murderers should serve life imprisonment? What purpose does it serve?
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 12:05 PM on August 10, 2008


All of the other cases mentioned in the article had signed confessions.

A response of "But they were tried and convicted" really doesn't address the issue of a broken legal system.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:24 PM on August 10, 2008


To quote Lord Halifax: “Men are not hanged for stealing horses but that horses not be stolen.”

People are put into jail for several reasons. First is discouraging others from committing crimes out of fear of punishment. It's one of the propaganda values of showing so many cop shows on TV. When you identify with the police's point of view, when you see that the bad guy doesn't get away with it - that the authorities will outsmart you if you commit a crime - this helps deter crime through fear.

But the other part of this idea is to eliminate from society those who have demonstrated, through their actions, that they can't be trusted around the rest of us - that they murder, they rape, they steal. If someone is a recidivist violent criminal, I have no problem with the idea that that person can't be trusted around the rest of us.

But these cases in this article are a little different, more subtle, perhaps. If a 12 doesn't have a full formed mental system, can they held fully accountable, or are they more like the insane? Are they non compos mentis? Were they railroaded into confessing to a crime they didn't commit? According to the Innocence Project, in cases where a conviction was overturned by later DNA testing, "twenty-five percent of cases involve a false confession or incriminating statement made by the defendant."
posted by MythMaker at 12:30 PM on August 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


Mandatory sentencing is idiotic. The judge & jury should be allowed to handle each case as appropriate for the individual circumstances. They might as well not even bother having a trial if they can't be allowed to make an appropriate judgment.
posted by mike3k at 12:44 PM on August 10, 2008


If it was your mother, sister, wife, or daughter who was one of the victims, would you be so forgiving of, say, Louis Hamlin and Jamie Savage (ages 16 and 15, respectively), who raped and tortured (including shooting one victim in the eye with a BB gun) two 12-year-old girls? Who had left them for dead but one victim survived and ran naked and covered with blood to the nearby railroad track where an engineer found her and called for help?

What about Karen Severson and Laura Doyle, who drowned a high school rival?

Suppose you were a family member of Ronnie Green. Nathaniel Abraham was just 11 years old when he shot Mr. Green in the head and killed him. The Court had a sudden surge of compassion and released Abraham in 2007. Nate has since been arrested on drug charges. Would you be grateful that Mr. Abraham hadn't languished in the prison system during his adult years and was released?
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:18 PM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Is there Latin for "the anger of the family determines the sentence?"
posted by Citizen Premier at 1:22 PM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Citizen Premier: It is not a direct translation, per se, but I believe it's known in the US as "status quo".
posted by boo_radley at 1:35 PM on August 10, 2008


Mandatory sentencing is idiotic. The judge & jury should be allowed to handle each case as appropriate for the individual circumstances.

But if there were not mandatory sentencing, we'd all be here voicing our outrage about the widely varying sentences given in similar crimes: "it's so unjust that Joe got ten years for his cold-blooded killing of a convenience store clerk, while Frank got life without parole for his own cold-blooded killing of the convenience store clerk."

The justification for mandatory sentencing is a pretty compelling one, which is that it is unfair for people convicted of the exact same offense to receive dramatically different sentences. The element of randomness (one jury has more teachers on it --- who are known to be more sympathetic to defendants --- than another) is somewhat eliminated by mandatory sentencing laws.

But of course mandatory sentencing does sometimes lead to results that seem unfair. The federal sentencing guidelines, for example, requires a very complicated process of assigning and subtracting "points" for various aspects of the offense, an attempt to quantify human experience that is worthy of Jeremy Bentham.
posted by jayder at 1:43 PM on August 10, 2008


somewhat eliminated

"somewhat alleviated" is what I should have said
posted by jayder at 1:44 PM on August 10, 2008


>>When you identify with the police's point of view, when you see that the bad guy doesn't get away with it - that the authorities will outsmart you if you commit a crime - this helps deter crime through fear.

Which no doubt explains the popularity of "non-violent" white collar crime. There's no Corp Cops, showing a SWAT team taking down Skilling and Lay types who destroyed the lives and means of thousands. And, if such a program did exist, it'd probably increase such crime, as the audience was treated to a puppet show of legal maneuvering (purchased with those ill-gotten gains) which ultimately would result in exoneration or 6-12 months in a minimum security country club. Or hey, a pardon from your friends in DC!

Essentially, crime and punishment rest on resource competition, which is a hot topic right now. Courts and laws primarily protect the status quo for the connected wealthy and come down like a hammer on those who use violence at a personal level, so the wealthy need not fear that the have-nots rob them at gunpoint, or worse. But if you have means or status, robbing others is simply a matter of lobbying for favorable law, bribing someone to do your will and look the other way, or if all else fails, buying the best defense. Destroy lives and take all you want, indirectly, behind the scenes, people probably call you "sir". Do it directly, face to face, you'll be called 'thug', and done away with for the common good. Which by no means excuses violence. But it does ask us to look more closely at what we hold harmful and harmless. Sweatshopping folks in a far-off land so you can drive your profits up is not less harmful, I would argue, than carjacking or home invasion, however amazingly repugnant and obvious those crimes are.

Hell, if you control a country, you can even coerce others to kill and rob in your interests and call it "policy". More resource competition, but on a grander scale, and clothed in lies and platitudes. Duty. Security. Patriotism. There's a million of 'em.

"I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenue in. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers...I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras "right" for American fruit companies in 1903. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints." -Marine Corps General Smedley D. Butler, 1931



Apologies if anyone finds this to be a derail. In my experience, the thing that separates the denizens of Death Row from those in the Halls of Power is P.R.
posted by SaintCynr at 1:45 PM on August 10, 2008 [11 favorites]


Is there Latin for "the anger of the family determines the sentence?"

whitus iratus negros mortem
posted by flarbuse at 2:01 PM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


If it was your mother, sister, wife, or daughter who was one of the victims, would you be so forgiving

From the Guardian article:
LaBelle has been careful to involve victims of juvenile crime and their families in the debate about changing the law, and several victims' families have privately offered their support. "They say that what happened was horrible and has devastated them, but they do not want the knowledge that the child who committed the crime will stay in jail for ever to rest on their conscience."
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 2:33 PM on August 10, 2008


You're a hard to love country sometimes America. Brutal and Third World.
posted by A189Nut at 2:59 PM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Mythmaker: that the authorities will outsmart you if you commit a crime - this helps deter crime through fear.

SaintCynr: Which no doubt explains the popularity of "non-violent" white collar crime.

That's silly. People who do carjackings and robberies are barely qualified to get a job at McDonald's, much less have the opportunity to commit "white collar crimes." It's not as though people who would otherwise be carjacking and robbing are turning to white collar crime.
posted by jayder at 4:07 PM on August 10, 2008


Jayder, what I was getting at is that the opportunities and punishments for malfeasance vary according to one's level of wealth and resulting experiences/social conditioning to begin with. Since the penalties for white collar crime and corruption are a joke, and easier to dodge for people of means in any case, it makes it clear why things are the way they are.
posted by SaintCynr at 4:19 PM on August 10, 2008


What struck me in particular was this section from the article:
The US is among a tiny minority of countries (Somalia is another) that have refused to sign up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

While the rest of the world has collectively moved further and further in the direction of protecting children from harsh prison sentences, the US has, according to this article, 2,270 prisoners sentenced as children to life without parole, while there are a mere 12 child prisoners serving such sentences in the rest of the world.
posted by vodkaboots at 4:28 PM on August 10, 2008


Brandon Blatcher writes "Blevins got 20 to 50 years, with the hope of reducing his sentence through good behaviour. Dupure got life without parole, with no forensic evidence tying her to the crime and entirely on the strength of Blevins' testimony."

This is one of the things that is fucked with the system. The key players are often in a position to get off relatively lightly by helping the DA's career by increasing his conviction ratio while the drivers/mules/low level associates go away for disproportionate time, often under "felony murder" like sentences.

jayder writes "But of course mandatory sentencing does sometimes lead to results that seem unfair. The federal sentencing guidelines, for example, requires a very complicated process of assigning and subtracting 'points' for various aspects of the offense, an attempt to quantify human experience that is worthy of Jeremy Bentham."

Lots of problems with the guidelines. Famously that cocaine incurred lighter sentences compared to crack because it wasn't diluted as much and the sentencing guidelines treated them the same.
posted by Mitheral at 4:45 PM on August 10, 2008


Rave: My Life Since Getting Out of Prison

Sorry, it's a little off topic. I just came across it reading BoC.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 4:57 PM on August 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


They might as well not even bother having a trial if they can't be allowed to make an appropriate judgment.

Please don't tempt the rah-rah prison-staters in here.

And please, for your own sake, NEVER TALK TO THE POLICE.
posted by telstar at 5:33 PM on August 10, 2008


I never expected to find people defending these laws in this thread. I'm well aware that the author of the article has an agenda, but I honestly cannot see any logic behind mandatory life without parole sentences for children.

Yes, defend the prison system all you will. It keeps violent people away from law-abiding citizens, it acts as a deterrent (for some people, at least), and it is a punishment for those who break the law.

But isn't there something wrong when a child, who we don't trust to make decisions about alcohol, or politics, or to drive a car, can be punished for the rest of their lives due to one bad decision? In most cases, these aren't sociopathic murderers (for whom their is a reasonable argument that they be removed from society forever), but people who fucked up.

This doesn't protect the rest of us (unless the courts can be certain that these children will be violent murderers for the rest of their lives); it does act as a deterrent, but at what to me is an appallingly inhuman cost; and it is a punishment far in excess of the crime. I know the victims of these murders have lost more than the perpetrators, I know that the punishment can never match the crime, but that doesn't excuse these sentences.

Two thousand, two hundred and seventy people. That's appalling.
posted by twirlypen at 5:43 PM on August 10, 2008


nthing those who think mandatory sentencing is a bad idea. I remember reading this quote, "The beginning of compassion is specificity." That is by and far one of the most enlightened things I've ever heard. Yes, these are brutal crimes, and yes, some people probably do deserve to go to jail for life (although I'd argue almost none). The only safeguard we have against unjust sentencing is the ability of the court and the judge to assess the situation based on the facts. A judge is the only person who should be able to make a call like this, and legislatively, the system should be weighted against extreme punishments, not for them! Where we demand the opposite, where we systematize cruelty, where we legislatively eliminate the chance for redemption, we've failed as human beings.
posted by saysthis at 5:54 PM on August 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wrote....
There's a lot to be said for why life imprisonment is a bad idea, but this article isn't it.

Someone else later wrote....
tkolar, even if they did it, why do you feel that young murderers should serve life imprisonment?

Uh, I don't?

I do think that an article that tries to paint people who have confessed to particularly heinous murders as victims is a really bad idea, though. I'm willing to talk fairness (and frankly I think that outright execution is more equitable than a 70 year imprisonment), but I can't say I have much sympathy for any of these folks.
posted by tkolar at 8:07 PM on August 10, 2008


Having served 13 years in state and federal prison, I spent much time with many serving life sentences for murder. Most of these men committed their crime under the age of 20, and many had no previous criminal records. I can say with little doubt that most of these people will not commit another criminal act again, and certainly aren't psychopaths or sociopaths without conscience or remorse. (This is not a blatant statement for all murderers, but a large number of them.)

A large portion of teens that commit murder (outside of gang activity) are "heat of the moment" crimes, and often times perpetrated against a family member or someone known to them that has gotten out of hand.

I've been out of prison five years now and I know more than six friends and associates who've all done time for murder that have been out longer than myself and not one of them has committed any crime and all work as productive, tax paying citizens.

All those incarcerated should be offered the opportunity to better themselves with schooling and vocations.
posted by TooSlick at 8:19 PM on August 10, 2008 [10 favorites]


Of the 307 prisoners in Michigan on that sentence, 69% are black, compared with 15% of the state's population as a whole.

It would be better to compare the percent on that sentence who are black with the percent convicted of that charge.

This doesn't protect the rest of us (unless the courts can be certain that these children will be violent murderers for the rest of their lives)

How can you ever be certain of such a thing?

All those incarcerated should be offered the opportunity to better themselves with schooling and vocations.

But in actual fact, the slots in those programs are limited and it makes more sense to give the limited places to people who are expected to get out of prison some day.
posted by Jahaza at 10:24 PM on August 10, 2008


Mitheral: Lots of problems with the guidelines. Famously that cocaine incurred lighter sentences compared to crack because it wasn't diluted as much and the sentencing guidelines treated them the same.

I read this as saying that the perceived problem is that cocaine sentences are lower than they should be. It's exactly the opposite. Crack sentences are disproportionately higher (roughly, same sentences for 1/100th the weight of powder cocaine). The US Sentencing Commission has recommended decreasing the disparity.
posted by daksya at 1:09 AM on August 11, 2008


You know, saying 'these are awful people, they did X, Y, and horrible Z!' is tuo quoque? Generally logic demands that you make an argument beyond claiming that someone is just as bad as what's being done to him or her.

I'm not necessarily sure that putting children in prison for life is a good idea. Certainly one needs to monitor for dangerous, violent behaviour, but who is this helping, asides from allowing people to get their gleeful revenge?

First of all, the less mature mental state of children is supposed to make them less responsible for their actions. If they can't vote, or partake in a number of the privileges awarded to adults (smoking, drinking, gambling, direct control of own property, and in some regions, consent to sex) it's sort of peculiar to render them adults only when it suits the state. You can't really have it both ways without essentially admitting that you're oppressing children while knowing that they're as mentally capable as adults. So is a 12 year old as responsible for their choices as an adult, or not?

Then there's the issue of severity of punishment. It does make coherent sense to try to provide some negative consequences for socially reprehensible behaviour, and to isolate dangerous offenders so that they are prevented from a repeat crime. And yet, prisons are known to be over crowded, terrible places, and other countries (say, Japan) have seen a lower re-offense rate with lighter sentencing.

Some of these people were only peripherally involved with somebody’s murder (assuming guilt), so they’re not exactly in danger of going around killing people. They’d be much better served with a short sentence and a well-monitored parole period of the kind that discourages them from spending time with more violent offenders or criminals. Instead, in prison, they’re forced to keep company with exactly the sort of people they were previously found guilty of collaborating with.

Other people convicted of murder are mentally ill. Granted it makes no difference to the victim if their killer is doing it out of a chemical imbalance or fully aware cruelty, but a prison is probably not the ideal place for a head case.

And the number of poor people in prison is worrisome. While humans are supposed to be responsible for their actions regardless of where they sit in the social strata, it’s sort of wrong to know that because my ancestors were pale and European, and my parents made education a priority for me. I’m never going to have the option to be involved in any crime but white collar, drugs or domestic violence (god forbid), except as a bystander, and my paleness means that I know I may get the benefit of the doubt, even so.
posted by Phalene at 5:59 AM on August 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


daksya writes "I read this as saying that the perceived problem is that cocaine sentences are lower than they should be. It's exactly the opposite. Crack sentences are disproportionately higher (roughly, same sentences for 1/100th the weight of powder cocaine). The US Sentencing Commission has recommended decreasing the disparity."

I wasn't meaning to imply that one was correct (personally I think cocaine, in what ever form, should be decriminalized) just that the sentencing is wildly different for essentially the same product packaged differently.

It's part of the drug war propaganda I suppose. Same as how around here they always quote the street value of the pot they seize at grow-ops.
posted by Mitheral at 7:11 AM on August 11, 2008


Evidence shows that murderers are overwhelmingly people who have not committed crimes previously and typically do not do so again on release. OTOH a lot of the criminal justice time and effort is devoted to a minority of criminals who just cannot stop being criminals.

Government report on recidivism rates is here

Highlights include the following:

Released prisoners with the highest rearrest rates were robbers (70.2%), burglars (74.0%), larcenists (74.6%), motor vehicle thieves (78.8%), those in prison for possessing or selling stolen property (77.4%), and those in prison for possessing, using, or selling illegal weapons (70.2%).
Within 3 years, 2.5% of released rapists were arrested for another rape, and 1.2% of those who had served time for homicide were arrested for homicide.
posted by binturong at 9:34 AM on August 11, 2008


Orange Pamplemousse:
Part of me wants to think that the possible exploitation of cheap labor has no relation to sentencing laws. The rest just hurts.
This has been discussed before.
posted by vsync at 9:58 AM on August 11, 2008


These stories make me really sad, but also angry. I get it: jail time is about punishment. That is not bad in and of itself. We've strayed very far from where our EU neighbors have gone, and in doing so put the appearance of being "tough on crime" ahead of any attempts at rehabilitation or curbing recidivism. These laws do not achieve their objective at all when it comes to deterring crime. To quote this little study:

"Fifty studies dating from 1958 involving 336,052 offenders produced 325 correlations between recidivism and (a) length of time in prison and recidivism or (b) serving a prison sentence vs. receiving a community-based sanction.

The results were as follows: under both of the above conditions, prison produced slight increases in recidivism. Secondly, there was some tendency for lower risk offenders to be more negatively affected by the prison experience."


Obviously someone put away for life without parole poses no risk for recidivism. I just don't agree that it should be used so broadly, without allowing for judicial restraint or individual facts of their case. It seems incredibly cruel and misguided, particularly int he first example in the story. That could have been me, or any other girl gone astray with a loser boyfriend. If her story is true, that she was sitting in the cafe when the guy committed the murder, then the idea that she is in prison at all seems awful. I really hope the bill rolling back those mandatory minimums will pass, but I will not be holding my breath. Nobody wants to look soft on crime in an election year.
*gets down off the box*
posted by wowbobwow at 11:28 AM on August 11, 2008


If it was your mother, sister, wife, or daughter who was one of the victims, ...

This is a standard baiting line, a cheapshot, gotcha argument. The righteous anger of someone wronged is not the basis for a criminal justice system in a society. Try again.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:03 PM on August 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Within 3 years, 2.5% of released rapists were arrested for another rape, and 1.2% of those who had served time for homicide were arrested for homicide.

Not sure if I'm reading Table 3 of the report right, but it appears that there were 18,001 / 4,132,174 = 0.00436 convicted of homicide, and 2,871 / 744,480 = 0.00386 reincarcerated for homicide. So there's a slightly lower rate of homicide as the recidivist crime among the released compared to its rate among the original convictions.

Seems to me that the take-home message is that murderers released from prison are re-convicted at a somewhat lower rate (~40%) than people who steal (~75%), but they are hardly model citizens.

On the other hand, I agree with SaintCyr:

"Courts and laws primarily protect the status quo for the connected wealthy and come down like a hammer on those who use violence at a personal level..."
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:30 PM on August 11, 2008


I'm not too impressed by the article. It seems like grand standing since there are no links to the real cases. People are imprisons for several reasons rehabilitation, propaganda, and just plain dangerous. Teenagers are almost always prime candidates for rehabilitation. Both rehabilitation and propaganda are best served by electronic house arrest systems. True perpetual incarceration seems like the place for people who are just plain dangerous.

Although one might imagine a "month on month off" system where criminals alternated months of house arrest with months of real incarceration, but prison wardens had authority to adjust the exact amounts of time. So they would continually receive the message "Where do you want to be?" You'll spend more time there if you seem to be progressing.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:37 PM on August 11, 2008


If it was your mother, sister, wife, or daughter who was one of the victims, ...

That question can go both ways as well: what if it's your mother, sister, wife, daughter who committed the crime - should they be given a second chance or locked away for life?
posted by TooSlick at 9:04 PM on August 12, 2008


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