American Justice: Teenage Lifers Seek a Second Chance
Jessica McGowan/The Birmingham News, 2001 via NY times
Hat Tip New York Times
By ADAM LIPTAK
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In December, the United Nations took up a resolution calling for the abolition of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for children and young teenagers. The vote was 185 to 1, with the United States the lone dissenter.
Indeed, the United States stands alone in the world in convicting young adolescents as adults and sentencing them to live out their lives in prison. According to a new report, there are 73 Americans serving such sentences for crimes they committed at 13 or 14.
Mary Nalls, an 81-year-old retired social worker here, has some thoughts about the matter. Her granddaughter Ashley Jones was 14 when she helped her boyfriend kill her grandfather and aunt — Mrs. Nalls’s husband and daughter — by stabbing and shooting them and then setting them on fire. Ms. Jones also tried to kill her 10-year-old sister.
Mrs. Nalls, who was badly injured in the rampage, showed a visitor to her home a white scar on her forehead, a reminder of the burns that put her into a coma for 30 days. She had also been shot in the shoulder and stabbed in the chest.
“I forgot,” she said later. “They stabbed me in the jaw, too.”
But Mrs. Nalls thinks her granddaughter, now 22, deserves the possibility of a second chance.
“I believe that she should have gotten 15 or 20 years,” Mrs. Nalls said. “If children are under age, sometimes they’re not responsible for what they do.”
The group that plans to release the report on Oct. 17, the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Ala., is one of several human rights organizations that say states should be required to review sentences of juvenile offenders as the decades go by, looking for cases where parole might be warranted.
But prosecutors and victims’ rights groups say there are crimes so terrible and people so dangerous that only life sentences without the possibility of release are a fit moral and practical response.
“I don’t think every 14-year-old who killed someone deserves life without parole,” said Laura Poston, who prosecuted Ms. Jones. “But Ashley planned to kill four people. I don’t think there is a conscience in Ashley, and I certainly think she is a threat to do something similar.”
Specialists in comparative law acknowledge that there have been occasions when young murderers who would have served life terms in the United States were released from prison in Europe and went on to kill again. But comparing legal systems is difficult, in part because the United States is a more violent society and in part because many other nations imprison relatively few people and often only for repeat violent offenses.
“I know of no systematic studies of comparative recidivism rates,” said James Q. Whitman, who teaches comparative criminal law at Yale. “I believe there are recidivism problems in countries like Germany and France, since those are countries that ordinarily incarcerate only dangerous offenders, but at some point they let them out and bad things can happen.”
The differences in the two approaches, legal experts said, are rooted in politics and culture. The European systems emphasize rehabilitation, while the American one stresses individual responsibility and punishment.
Corrections professionals and criminologists here and abroad tend to agree that violent crime is usually a young person’s activity, suggesting that eventual parole could be considered in most cases. But the American legal system is more responsive to popular concerns about crime and attitudes about punishment, while justice systems abroad tend to be administered by career civil servants rather than elected legislators, prosecutors and judges.
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