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Hot Topic (11/9): Should juvenile offenders receive life sentences?

Posted by on Nov. 9, 2009 at 2:36 AM
  • 31 Replies

Monday, November 09, 2009
By Moriah Balingit, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Eric Hancock

Eric Hancock was 16 and with a cash-strapped older cousin when he robbed a Mount Oliver convenience store, killing the clerk before he left with $400 and a pack of Newport cigarettes in the summer of 2007.

His public defender, Veronica Brestensky, maintains that he never fully understood the consequences of his actions and she does not believe he's beyond repair. Eric, who is from Greensboro, N.C., but was visiting family when he robbed the store, said he did not intend to kill the clerk and that the gun accidentally went off.

"I don't think it ever sunk in, the ramifications," Ms. Brestensky said. "I don't see any reason whatsoever that he would not be able to be rehabilitated."

But because Eric was charged with murder, he was automatically tried as an adult. He ultimately was convicted of second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Ms. Brestensky called the case "heart-breaking."

"You're dealing with a kid who hasn't been alive long enough to learn from [his] mistakes," she said.

Today, for the first time in its history, the U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on the constitutionality of such penalties for juvenile offenders when it reviews the separate cases of two Florida men, Joe Sullivan and Terrance Graham, who received life sentences for crimes they committed at 13 and 17, respectively. The cases, while not consolidated, deal with similar issues and are scheduled to be argued back-to-back today.

In Pennsylvania, some legislators, prosecutors and advocates are watching the cases closely because the state has more juvenile lifers than any other in the nation -- with 444 reported in May 2008 -- and the number grows every year. Last year, the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission tallied a record 11 juveniles who received life sentences.

Attorney General Tom Corbett did not return phone calls seeking comment. But a friend-of-the-court brief he signed with 18 other states' attorneys general, written by Louisiana Attorney General James D. "Buddy" Caldwell, urged the Supreme Court to leave the difficult task of prosecuting juveniles up to them.

"When to be merciful to a juvenile who has committed a terrible crime? When to punish?" Mr. Caldwell wrote. "No one wants the responsibility to answer these questions, but they must be answered. The Constitution leaves that arduous but necessary task to the collective wisdom of the states and their citizens."

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee, held a hearing last year on the fact that Pennsylvania led the nation in the number of juvenile lifers. He said he hoped the Supreme Court would provide some guidance to legislators as to how to deal with young defendants, especially those convicted of felony murder.

To be convicted of felony murder, a person only has to commit a felony that results in a homicide and does not need to be involved with or even present for the actual murder. The crime in Pennsylvania still carries a life sentence.

"There may be cases in which [the defendants] weren't present and it's not first-degree [murder]," he said. "We might look at that, but there are cases where they should probably spend the rest of their life in jail.

"Maybe the Supreme Court will resolve those issues for us. I'm hopeful that they will," he said.

Some lawyers who are following the case say the Supreme Court's decision is not likely to have any direct legal impact in Pennsylvania, because neither of the two defendants before the Supreme Court was convicted of murder. All of Pennsylvania's juvenile lifers were convicted of first- or second-degree murder.

One of the two Florida defendants, Joe Sullivan, was sentenced to life after being convicted of robbing and raping an elderly woman when he was 13. The second, Terrance Graham, received a life sentence at 17 for participating in a home invasion when he was on parole for another armed robbery.

Even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of one or both of the defendants, a question remains as to what the court will say in terms of what makes the sentences unconstitutional.

The justices could, for example, set an age limit and say that defendants under a particular age can't receive life sentences. Or they could say that life sentences for juveniles who have not committed murder are unconstitutional.

David Acker, the attorney for 12-year-old murder defendant Jordan Brown, does not believe the two cases before the Supreme Court will directly affect his client. Jordan is accused of killing his father's pregnant girlfriend in rural Lawrence County when he was 11 and will face life without parole if convicted of homicide as an adult.

He believes the Supreme Court will carve out a narrower rule.

"They happened to pick two cases that are not homicide cases," he said, noting that the court has declined to hear cases involving juveniles who have received life without parole for homicide convictions in the past. "The Supreme Court has a habit of trying to be specific and as limited [in their] ruling as possible."

Still, even if the case has no direct legal impact, advocates are hoping it will stoke a discussion about the issue in Pennsylvania and that legislators will start to consider what justices today are considering.

Marsha Levick, chief counsel of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, helped author a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the defendants, in which she asked justices to consider "a very modest remedy ... not release, simply an opportunity to review."

Ms. Levick said she hopes the court takes into account its ruling in Roper v. Simmons, in which it abolished the death penalty for juvenile offenders on the basis that it was "cruel and unusual." In that case, the court overturned the death sentence of Christopher Simmons of Missouri, who at 17 hog-tied a woman and threw her into a river to drown.

She said that in that case, the court acknowledged that children, even those who commit heinous crimes, should be treated differently under the law because of their reduced capacity for reason and because they can be rehabilitated.

Both Ms. Levick and Mr. Acker said they hope the court carries over its reasoning from Roper -- that juveniles are intrinsically amenable to rehabilitation -- and applies it to the current cases. They see both life imprisonment and the death penalty as "terminal sentences," because both sanctions presume the defendant is irreparable and can never return to society.

"If you're going to take a child and give him a life sentence without any hope, without any possibility of parole, that's the equivalent of the death penalty," Mr. Acker said.

Advocates are also urging the court to take into account the growing body of psychological and neurological research that shows adolescents are wired differently than adults and are more impulsive and more susceptible to peer pressure.

But Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. pointed out that the state court system already weighs many of these factors through a process called decertification, in which juveniles charged with crimes in adult criminal court can have their case transferred back to juvenile court through a hearing.

"Through the decertification process, you can address ... intelligence, age, family, amenability to rehabilitation," he said. "You do that on the front end."

Still, Mr. Zappala called Ms. Levick's proposition -- that juvenile lifers have an opportunity to be paroled at some point -- "not unreasonable."

"There's a mechanism on the front end, why can't there be a system on the back end?" he asked.

He added that parole boards would have to be cautious, and consider things such as the danger to the community and trauma to the victim's family.

His position was shared by El Gray, who works with the county's anti-violence initiative One Vision One Life. Mr. Gray has not only worked with criminal youth but has been the victim of violent crime himself. His grandson, 19-year-old Raemon Gray, and cousin, 23-year-old Alvin Smith, were killed within three days of each other last November.

Mr. Gray said he'd be in favor of life sentences with the possibility of parole for the men who pulled the trigger, regardless of whether they're juveniles. He views violent behavior as the consequence of outside influences, such as broken families, drugs and access to weapons, and that the effects these influences can be reversed.

"I believe that after a certain period of time that if an individual is trying to do something positive while incarcerated ... then there's a strong possibility he will do something positive on the outside," he said.

* * *

Do you think juvenile offenders should receive life sentences for non-homicide crimes?  Should they receive life sentences (or even death sentences) for murder?

Can juvenile offenders be rehabilitated?

Should juvenile offenders ever be tried as adults? 

 





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by on Nov. 9, 2009 at 2:36 AM
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Replies (1-10):
smcclure2005
by Member on Nov. 9, 2009 at 3:53 AM

In my opinion as a teenager you so know right from wrong and I think if you do the crime you should do the time, it also depends on the crime. If a 16 yr old kills someone as bad as it may sound then yes they should get the death penalty, because at 16 you know what death is now maybe not at 6 or 7 but at 16 you do. God forbid if my child(teenager) killed someone I would have to let them know that I do not condone what they did and they should take what the punishment is but let them know that they are still loved by me.

AdkArmyMom
by Silver Member on Nov. 9, 2009 at 8:14 AM

Yes, a teen should receive an adult sentence for committing a heinous crime such as rape and murder.  That person who lost his life isn't worth any less because the murderer was 14 or 16, rather than 18.  That just makes no sense. 

cjcharlie1959
by on Nov. 9, 2009 at 8:28 AM

Yes, and no chance of parole 

stormcris
by Christy on Nov. 9, 2009 at 8:45 AM

I think that a life sentence in prison is a poor service to humanity and to the crime. Prison only breeds hate and does nothing for the public except spend tax dollars. I think they should have to do something to serve the public and humanity with their time. I think this of all criminals. As far as where they should stay in prison it depends. If the crime was with intent then yes, if the crime was defensive then no. I think the rest of the criminals life they should be required to do work for the public in either case. I would also require them to complete a degree program and multiple other rehabilitation type programs with the inclusion of counseling. You cannot place a person in prison and then let that person out as the system is at this time. The odds of them coming out worse than they were before is much higher than the odds of them coming out and being able to function in society.

resamerie
by Platinum Member on Nov. 9, 2009 at 9:55 AM

I have many other questions. Did the young man have a history of violence before this? Him saying that the gun went off 'accidentally' , that's a lawyer's excuse. Why did he have a gun to begin with.

Back to my original question, did he already have a rap sheet that was just going to get longer? Or was he just stupid that one day?

 It's a tough question since some will become more violent in jail and may get out one day, life sentence or not. Who is there to determine if they can be rehabilitated or not? Past actions show a lot but are not always admissible in court.

 I honestly don't think that there is a way to tell if a juvenile will continue that way of life or not so the only option we have is to lock them up as adults.



Serenity7
by on Nov. 9, 2009 at 10:01 AM

No one is a lost cause. Anyone can change. The key is the person has to want to change. Weather a 16 year old receives a life sentence that is up to the judge. But I am sure the person that the 16 year old killed. Family members would like him to get a life sentence. 

mamadixon
by Gold Member on Nov. 9, 2009 at 10:14 AM

Juvenile offenders should receive identical sentences to their adult counterparts. I am not a big believer in life sentences however. IMO, if a crime is so heinous that this person can never be released...bring out the guillotine. Otherwise I am much with Stormcris on this one. Not really a fan of prisons in general.

evythecute
by Bronze Member on Nov. 9, 2009 at 10:57 AM

I believe anyone, juveniles or adult can be rehabilitated if they choose the change their path. I personally know 2 people who committed what many people would see as unforgivable crimes. murder being one of them. that have made the choice to change their path so much so that their lives passion is to help other people in any way they can. Honestly probably 2 of the most wonderful people I have ever known, and have made a huge impact on my life.

I do not support the death penalty for anyone. I do believe there are some people who do need to spend life in prison because to let them out would most definitely put the public at risk. like some of the PP I agree that prison does breed hate, and is not the best place for rehabilitation.

NearSeattleMom
by Member on Nov. 9, 2009 at 1:42 PM

I think the prison system is a mess.  I don't see how throwing a 15-year old in prison for life makes any sense, really.  I don't think a teenager really understands the consequences of his actions--he might know right from wrong, but aren't there studies that show adolescent brains aren't fully formed?

That said, if a 15-year old killed someone, surely he ought to be punished.  But life sentences for situations in which no one was killed, no one was raped?  And even adults sometimes serve less than 20 years for murder . . . why should a teenager have to serve 50 or 60 years--or even longer?

I'd like to see separate rehab facilities for youthful offenders.  I'd like to see a focus on rehabilitation, not just punishment.  Education, counseling, etc. I do think there is hope for just about anybody to change.

How can we prevent teenagers from getting caught in this cycle of violence in the first place?  That's really the question.


rozepyle
by on Nov. 9, 2009 at 4:31 PM

this

Quoting stormcris:

I think that a life sentence in prison is a poor service to humanity and to the crime. Prison only breeds hate and does nothing for the public except spend tax dollars. I think they should have to do something to serve the public and humanity with their time. I think this of all criminals. As far as where they should stay in prison it depends. If the crime was with intent then yes, if the crime was defensive then no. I think the rest of the criminals life they should be required to do work for the public in either case. I would also require them to complete a degree program and multiple other rehabilitation type programs with the inclusion of counseling. You cannot place a person in prison and then let that person out as the system is at this time. The odds of them coming out worse than they were before is much higher than the odds of them coming out and being able to function in society.


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