Just as lightning flashes and dances across the sky, so too, does this life I live. In a world away, a jungle so thick that everything touches you, a war not of my making, took my father and sister in a cloud of thundering smoke.
BOOM — POOF, gone forever. I was ducking and dodging bullets and bombs in a body not mine, my mother’s.
She cried to heaven above and unseen spirits all around: not for what death just took but for what was not taken. My mother gave birth to a baby before its time, knowing it would not survive.
True to her fears, I came roaring into this world to the drowning sound of silence. A stillborn baby, dead, cold and blue like the river that caressed me. My mother, seeing her plight, gave me up to this river. Took, not taken. As I was being carried away by its current.
My first act as a human being was theft. It was then I took life from Death. I opened my eyes to a billion falling tears of angels, demons and spirits alike, the pouring rain. My first breath, a sound of thunder, my mother swam after me. Took not taken.
Now safe in her arms, she whispered, “You are a constant pain and worry to me. I will call you Pheej,” a name meaning constantly in a language soon to be lost like its people.
Fated to be a thief in this life, so I chose to believe. Took not taken. Three years old, living in a camp of dirt, surrounded by barbed wires and machine gun towers. My home a house made of bamboo trees tied together. Near dying, from hunger and thirst, death came for what I stole.
“No,” I said. “This life I took cannot be taken.” Saved through a miracle and grace, away to America we went. At 7 years old, I grew bold from the loss of my innocence, torturous beatings. Took, not taken.
By 12 years old, I took a lot of pain, joined a criminal street gang. Tired of shame and in pain. Hunger for revenge, I grew cold. With no guidance nor values, not wanting to understand, I became a wicked being.
Sixteen years old, in and out of juvenile hall and the Youth Authority (youth prison), I embraced my destiny and pain. I gave life to a criminal street gang, and the streets is where I found myself drowning again, this time in a pool of my own blood. Five bullets to my body, death, my old friend, came calling again. Deja vu, it said. My vision static like an old TV, out of picture and focus, then silence. I awoke to the sounds of machines beeping, to the face of a crying angel, my mother.
Took, not taken. I’ve done things I’m too shamed to mention. A thief I truly was, not even my family was safe from me. How right she was, though I never listened. Those friends she warned me about led me straight to prison. By 17, I took two lives. Now, I was walking with a limp from the shackles and chains made of iron. “Guilty of murders,” said the jury. “Life in prison!” cried the judge.
Took not taken. To hell here I come, your newborn son. Twenty-three years later, still nothing’s changed for the better, only worse. Thirty-nine years old, a flash of blood pouring out from six holes in my chest, my body torn to shreds. Drowning yet again in a pool of my own blood. Finally, death and I are together at last, I said.
Took, not taken. Darkness, then light. A new voice echoed inside my mind. Rise, my son, and open your newborn eyes. I did. Once afraid to care, live and love. Thought it was cool being a thug. How foolish I was to ever believe my fate a THIEF! My destiny PAIN!
Truly I must have been insane. How could this be, I exclaimed! Suddenly, so simple, the answer came to me. After destroying and ruining countless lives, I have come to truly realize and understand. This life is a gift given to me, not theft.
Took, not taken. Now with meanings and purpose, a new flame ignited deep within me. Burning every ounce of my soul with a thirst and desire to raise people higher than even they can see or believe possible to achieve.
We all possess a beautiful mind, a heart filled with courage, a soul strengthened by compassion. Greatness awaits us all, accept it. Don’t follow your anger. Don’t give in to hate. Take your gift of life with the knowledge learned and build a life for the family that awaits your arrival.
The third time is a charm, so they say. I am here alive today to tell you it’s never too late. Took, not taken.
Pheng Ly was sentenced as an adult to 50 years to life at age 17 for two counts of gang-related first degree murder. Now 40, he is incarcerated at the Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California.
The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at email@example.com.
Decades of research from the fields of criminology and adolescent brain science find that the decisions made in youth — even very unwise decisions — do not crystallize criminality. Instead, as young people age and mature they develop the capacity to make different choices.
Fortunately, more informed policies have begun to replace the punishments that proliferated during the 1990s when fear of “superpredators” and calls for “adult time, adult crime” dominated youth crime policy. The incarceration rate for youth in juvenile and adult systems soared then. Today, youth incarceration in juvenile facilities is now half its level of 20 years ago. Driven by the work of advocates, legislators, researchers and judges, many now readily acknowledge that the juvenile justice system should be used sparingly and only for those who truly need confinement.
Based mostly on the adolescent brain science discoveries that concluded that executive functioning is not fully developed until adulthood, in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmonsthat the death penalty for juveniles violated the 8th Amendment. The Supreme Court has taken up the issue of severe sanctions for juveniles three more times since then, and as a result there are restrictions in the use of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for juveniles.
Changing public sentiment regarding the wisdom of sending young people to adult prisons has led policymakers in many states to revise misguided policies in this area. Many juveniles who would otherwise be languishing in adult prisons are now either in juvenile confinement facilities that are better designed for their needs or have been diverted from confinement altogether. In 2015, the number of juveniles held in adult prisons declined to less than 1,000, an 82 percent drop from the peak year in 1997.
These reforms have not resulted in any adverse public safety outcomes. Crime continues to be at historic lows.
Despite these advances, more than 9,000 people who were convicted as youth still do not stand to benefit from reforms either in the juvenile system or of the restrictions on punishments in the adult system. The Sentencing Project recently released a national study on the prevalence of life sentences nationwide, disaggregated by crime of conviction, race and ethnicity, gender and juvenile status. We obtained data from the states and federal Bureau of Prisons on the number of people serving three categories of life sentences: life with the possibility of parole (LWP), LWOP and virtual or de facto life sentences that amount to terms of 50 years or more. We learned that 1 in 7 prisoners is serving one of these sentences and that nearly 6 percent of the lifer population was under 18 at the time of the crime.
Aside from the roughly 2,300 individuals serving JLWOP there are approximately 7,000 juveniles who are serving parole-eligiblelife sentences around the country. For them, a statutory mandate or judicial decision has determined that spending the rest of their life in prison is reasonable if parole is not granted sooner. In New York, Georgia and Texas, more than 600 people sentenced for crimes in their youth have parolable life sentences. In California, which leads the nation in the category of life sentences, a notable 2,700 individuals are serving parole-eligible life for a crime committed under age 18.
In addition to the 7,000 juveniles serving life with parole, nationwide 2,000 individuals are serving de facto life sentences of 50 years or more for crimes committed when they were less than 18 years old. Louisiana reports 600 virtual lifers who were juveniles when their crime occurred and Texas reports nearly 450 such individuals.
The crimes committed by these juveniles were typically serious: 82 percent of lifers with the possibility of parole have been convicted of a homicide, and for half of these the crime was a first-degree murder. Among those serving de facto life for crimes committed as juveniles, 56 percent were convicted of a homicide and 94 percent were convicted of violent crime, including 22 percent for aggravated assault.
As with all life sentences, racial disproportionality is evident. African-American youth comprise more than half (53 percent) of the parolable and virtual life sentences, slightly less than their composition among the JLWOP population (63 percent). Overall, youth of color make up 81 percent of those serving life and virtual life sentences.
Some states stand out in the proportion of life and virtual life sentences being served by those who were young at the time of the crime. In Wisconsin, for instance, more than 11 percent of the life-sentenced population was a juvenile at the time of the crime. And while a first opportunity for parole comes after “only” 20 years in Wisconsin, we know from mounting research in parole politics and practices that rates of granting parole have fallen, particularly for those convicted of serious crimes and serving lengthy sentences. In Georgia, which in 2016 reported 600 people serving parole-eligible life sentences for crimes committed in their youth, the first opportunity for parole does not occur for 25 to 30 years. In Tennessee, the first parole hearing occurs only after a minimum of 51 years.
The requirement set forth in Graham v. Floridaof a “meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation” has shined a bright light on parole systems’ capacity and willingness to afford a second look, and when this should occur. In June, the Supreme Court ruled in Virginia et al. v. Dennis LeBlanc (582 US ___)that Virginia’s “geriatric release” mechanism provided a sufficiently meaningful opportunity for release. Geriatric release allows review for those 60 years old and older; this means that LeBLanc and other people in his position will wait more than 40 years before being considered for release.
This and other lengthy terms of imprisonment stand to violate the spirit if not the letter of the recent court rulings. They also conflict with recent recommendations of the American Law Institute, a respected body of legal scholars and law practitioners that proposes a review after 10 years for any juveniles sentenced to terms longer than this.
Revised state laws for sentencing juveniles are being developed in the aftermath of the Supreme Court rulings. It is important to include in these considerations all youth with life and lengthy terms; their potential for reform and maturation is just as likely as for those sentenced to life without parole.
Warning: What you are about to hear I wish on no one. That is why I am writing you this letter.
Now, close your eyes and imagine this: You’re 14 years old and just graduated from the eighth grade, summer is here and you cannot wait for your final summer vacation before high school begins. Your future is so bright; your vision is not yet clear on who or what you want to be; maybe a teacher, fireman, professional athlete, computer technician or an engineer.
Then you wake up one morning and there are cops at your front door calling out your name and saying, “You are under arrest for murder.”
“No! Not me!” is all you kept saying as they walk you to the cop car. You can feel the cold handcuffs squeezing tighter.
You see your parents and your siblings crying, not knowing what is to happen with you. One bad decision and your life is crushed. How can this be happening to me?
One year in Juvenile Hall and another in the county jail fighting the case. Then, “Bam,” the hammer drops: 25 years to life in prison is your sentence. You are so numb and shocked it is difficult to accept the reality that lies ahead for you.
Even though you were just a teenager, they still send you to a Level Four adult prison. Now, keep in mind that you stand 5 feet 5 inches tall and weigh “a buck nothing.” Seeing so much violence in prison, the vicious things you see every day, scare you to your bone, you can’t sleep with chill running to your dome. Crying for your mom and missing home.
Now, open your eyes. Could this be you? Really, think about it, could it be you?
This is a true story about my life. At 14 I thought hanging out with my so-called friends and my now ex-girlfriend was all that mattered.
I always thought I knew it all and had everything under control. I thought I was the one making the decisions in my life. Only to find out it was only half-true. Yes, it was my decision to make, but most of my decisions were based on a distorted belief of what I thought I had to do or who I had to be.
I was a follower and made decisions based on my insecurities because I wanted to be accepted by my peers. I wanted to be respected, and I wanted to be thought of as a cool guy who could be trusted, relied upon. That belief got me into a lot of trouble and made my life miserable.
I didn’t care about whom I hurt or anyone’s feelings. All I cared about was myself, and this false self-image that I had of myself. I didn’t care about any consequences or what I was doing to my community.
Nineteen-plus years later and 34 years of age, where are those friends now? They do not ever write, let alone visit me.
Guess who writes and visits me? My family and my elementary school teachers; the ones whom I never listened to before. Yeah, you heard me right, my third- and sixth-grade teachers still write. They are my true friends!
Even though I did not pull the trigger, in the eyes of the justice system I am just as guilty: “guilty by association.”
What does a true friend mean to you? Here is what it means to me now: someone who has my back, and I don’t mean have my back when I get into a fight. By having my back I mean being there when a situation like a fight is about to happen; but before it happens pulls me to the side, tells me it’s not worth it and takes me away from the situation.
I wish I had listened to those friends in my life. Instead, I chose the friends who thought fighting was the right thing to do. Look at me now! Not knowing if I will ever see home again. I was sacrificing today for tomorrow.
What are your dreams, goals and vision? Most important, what do you want to be? The choice is yours and only yours to make.
Pao Yang is serving 25 years to life for first-degree murder at the adult Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California.
This column appeared inThe Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth. David Inocencio foundedThe Beat Within in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New York — On Friday, Manhattan Justice Edward McLaughlin sentenced Taylonn Murphy Jr. to 50 years to life for the 2011 murder of Walter Sumter. Murphy was also convicted of conspiracy, robbery and weapons charges.
Murphy Jr., 20, was one of 103 young men and teenagers who were swept up early on a June morning in 2014 in what was then the largest raid in the New York City Police Department’s history. The Manhattan district attorney's office said the violence between rival crews from the Grant and Manhattanville Houses resulted in the shooting deaths of both of Murphy's sister, Tayshana, and Sumter.
In a victim impact statement, Sumter's father forgave Murphy but did not minimize the impact his son's death has had on his family.
"It is not just my wife and I that lost our only son," he said. "Walter was a brother to his sister and an uncle to his niece and nephews."
After the hearing, court officers escorted Sumter's family out of the courtroom. They declined to comment.
Speaking before issuing the sentence, Judge Edward McClaughlin admonished Murphy for what he called "narcissistic and egomaniacal gang behavior" that lead to Sumter's death — and criticized Murphy for wearing rosary beads during the trial. He also told Murphy not to expect visits from the many friends and family who filled the courtroom, sobbing as the judge admonished Murphy's family and community.
The courtroom was filled to capacity. Outside young men, many of them teenagers, waited for the outcome of the hearing. Some of Sumter’s friends wore laminated pictures of him around their necks. The friends of Murphy Jr. walked over and talked to Sumter's supporters while a group of court officers watched, some of them with their thumbs hooked through their bullet-proof vests.
The judge had ordered additional security to his courtroom for the sentencing. Taylonn Murphy Sr. described it as theater on McLaughlin's part since there had never been any disruption during his son's trial.
The elder Murphy spoke to the 20 or so young people who had come to support his son. He said he wanted to use his son's fate as a learning experience and discourage them from using use it as a pretense for more violence.
"Let's use this energy to prove them wrong on what they were saying about the community," he said. "No disrespect to your honor, but I don't know if he's been in our community, or has he seen our community, or understand the plights we have in our community."
Murphy Sr. said they convicted and sentenced his son with no physical evidence. Outside of 100 Centre St. Murphy looked to the courthouse across the street, where he sat through what he described as "two grueling trials" for his daughter's murder.
"It's hard to smile; I don't know how I do it sometimes," he said. "I've lost children to both sides of the gun. First Tayshana now my son. We're losing young people in droves."
Last Friday 20 children aged six and seven were systematically executed by a young man, who has been politely defined as suffering from a personality disorder, but who in another time would simply have been referred to as a mad man. His baby-killing arsenal included a Glock 9-mm handgun, a Sig Sauer 9-mm handgun and a Bushmaster 223-cal semi-automatic rifle.
Our president brushing tears from his eyes, said, “The majority of those who died today were children -- beautiful, little kids … They had their entire lives ahead of them -- birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.”
“Our hearts are broken.”
The president wept.
We, as a nation, mourned.
But we as a nation have tolerated a country where gun-related homicide deaths are 20 times greater than any other Western nation. In the last 10 years, more than 140,000 human beings were victims of gun-related homicide, another 208,000 turned guns on themselves, and since 1968 -- the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated -- more than 1 million deaths in the United States were gun related, according to Children’s Defense Fund statistics.
So, we as a nation have mourned a million times over, wiped away torrents of tears -- and have acted as if nothing can be done to stop the mayhem.
I am here to say something can be done – if we want it to be done.
Let me first wind the clock back to 1995, I helped oversee a project called the Minnesota Action Plan to End Gun Violence. We held forums all around Minnesota and talked to more than 500 adults and then an equal number of students at one junior and senior high school complex.
The most important lesson I learned is that a civil discussion can be held around gun violence related issues. People can advance meaningful ways to help reduce the gun violence. I also learned afterwards that the typical way the debate is framed now, whether intentionally or by happenstance, prevents viable solutions from occurring.
Here is an example of what I mean, which I have spoken of many times since. After the publication of the Minnesota Action Plan to End Gun Violence, I was invited to the local public television affiliate with about 100 other people who were working every day to end violence of all kinds. We were asked to sit stadium style before a panel addressing gun violence. It was the type of balanced panel we are all used to seeing. It included an anti-gun person, someone from the NRA, a politician from the far left, one from the far right and a mom whose son had been killed. Remember this is public broadcasting so the producers wanted it to be fair and balanced -- for real. But it took about five minutes for the sides to dig into their positions. If you were watching from home on your TV, you would shake your head and say, this is impossible. You can never reach a middle ground, never do anything to end gun violence. The sides were too far apart.
However, if they had only turned the camera around 180 degrees, there were 100 people who spent every day of their lives trying to end violence. One told me he called himself a straw bearer. He knew he alone could not stop gun violence, but he could do his share, which would be the equivalent of throwing a straw on the camel’s back. If enough others did the same, if everyone threw a straw to end gun violence, then eventually the back of the camel of gun violence would be broken.
The take away: One of us alone, isolated from others probably can’t affect change. However, if we see ourselves as individual straw bearers for change and know others are doing the same, we can collectively accomplish a lot. We did so with drunk driving, we did so with seatbelts and auto safety, and we did so with cigarette smoking. We can do it with gun violence.
There will be push back from the manufacturers who make the baby killer weapons and their overtly and covertly paid minions. Change will not happen overnight, it will happen one straw carried by one straw bearer at a time. But eventually that camel’s back of violence will break and we collectively can take control of the gun violence that plagues every nook and cranny of American life.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre Nov. 14 constitutes the second deadliest mass school shooting incident in American history, second only to the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in which a single assailant murdered 32 individuals and injured 17 others.
With an estimated 26 victims dead -- 20 of whom are children -- the recent massacre is far and away the deadliest shooting incident to ever occur in one of the nation’s elementary schools.
Although mass shooting incidents in university and high school settings have occurred in the past, the Newtown, Conn. massacre serves as a rare instance of a perpetrator targeting elementary school students. But similar shootings have taken place.
- On Oct. 20, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV entered the West Nickel Mines School in Bart Township, Penn. and killed five young girls - ranging in ages from 7 to 13 - while additionally wounding five others before committing suicide.
- On Jan. 17, 1989, Patrick Purdy opened fire on a playground filled with children at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, Calif. In the three-minute rampage, Purdy killed five students and wounded an additional 29 children before turning the gun on himself.
- On Sept. 26, 1988, James William Wilson, Jr. killed two eight-year-old children and wounded seven others with a .22-caliber pistol at Oakland Elementary School in Greenwood, S.C. Wilson was sentenced to death for the attack.
- On May 20, 1988, Laurie Dann shot and killed an eight-year-old boy and wounded five other individuals in an attack that took place at Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Winnetka, Ill. She later committed suicide.
- On Feb. 24, 1984, Tyrone Mitchell killed a 10-year-old girl and wounded 11 other children when he opened fire on students exiting 49th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles. The perpetrator than killed himself with a shotgun.
- On Jan. 29, 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer injured eight children and killed two adults when she opened fire at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, Calif. She was tried as an adult and is serving a sentence of 25 years to life at the California Institute for Women.
Historically, the single deadliest attack on elementary students to ever take place in the United States occurred in Bath Township, Mich., when Andrew Kehoe -- a school board treasurer alleged to have been spurred by foreclosure proceedings on his farm -- killed 38 children and wounded more than 50 others in a bombing that transpired on May 18, 1927.
On Saturday, Newtown, Conn. officials released the names of the 20 children and six adults slain in last Friday’s shooting spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School. According to initial reports, all of the children killed in the attack were between 6 or 7 years old.
State police say 12 of the young victims were female and eight were boys. All six of the slain adults were female.
H. Wayne Carver II, the state’s chief medical examiner, said it appears as if the victims were all killed using the same firearm. “All the wounds that I know of at this point were cause by the one weapon,” he told CNN.
At a news conference, Carver said while examining seven bodies, he observed that each victim had been shot anywhere from three to 11 times by the alleged gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza.
“I believe everyone was hit more than once,” he said.
Postmortem examinations of the children have been completed, he said, with most of the adult victims examined on Saturday evening. Examinations of the alleged gunman and his mother, Nancy -- found dead in her Newtown home and believed to be the first victim of her son’s rampage -- are scheduled to conclude before the end of the weekend.
Investigators have said Lanza attempted to purchase a firearm at a Dick’s Sporting Goods in Newtown earlier in the week. The weapons Lanza allegedly used in the massacre were all legally purchased by and registered to Nancy Lanza, ABC News reports.
Several law enforcement officials said the alleged gunman was involved in an altercation at the school on Thursday.
Lieutenant J. Paul Vance, Connecticut police spokesman, said Lanza forced his way into the school on Friday morning, and that investigators had uncovered “some very good evidence” regarding possible motives for the attack, according to The New York Times.
For decades, New York City was besieged by violent crime, peaking in 1990 when the city was ravaged by an estimated 2,245 murders.
But then something remarkable happened, according to Greg Berman, author of the recent report “A Thousand Small Sanities: Crime Control Lessons from New York.” Over the last two decades, New York City experienced an unprecedented turnaround in violent crime. In 2009, there were 461 murders in the city, a 79 percent drop from 20 years earlier. Other crimes drastically declined as well, with the city seeing significant decreases in rapes, robberies and car thefts. Berman quotes Frank Zimring, author of the book “The City That Became Safe,” who called the crime rate reduction in New York City “the largest and longest sustained drop in street crime ever experienced by a big city in the developed world.”
Berman praised New York City’s commitment to incarceration alternatives, stating that the city has “long been blessed with an infrastructure of non-profit groups” such as the Vera Institute of Justice and the Center for Community Alternatives, which he considers vital players in the development of community-based solutions. Another key to the city’s success, according to Berman, is its use of specialized court-based programs, such as drug courts and mental health courts, which give judges the discretion to eschew prison sentences for treatment and rehabilitation services.
Place plays a critical role in policing, Berman says, not just people. And New York City successfully expanded its focus through its use of localized “hotspot” patrolling - most notably, the New York City Police Department’s use of COMPSTAT, which zeroes in on specific precinct and neighborhood activity. Also important, according to Berman, was the promotion of informal social control processes that encourage voluntary adherence to the law through implicit and explicit community and family pressure.
An example of community pressure, recently created, teen-led youth courts in some New York City neighborhoods allow local juveniles to hear actual low-level misdemeanor cases. According to Berman, youth court sanctions are intended to be restorative, not necessarily punitive.
“As valuable as they are in terms of training leaders and providing an early intervention for troubled teens, youth courts’ most valuable contribution is probably symbolic,” he said. “They are a potent symbol of the justice system being willing to cede a measure of authority to local voices and to engage in the co-production of justice.”
In his conclusion, Berman calls the United States’ legal system, and its often-overlapping federal, state and local jurisdictions, “notoriously labyrinthine,” but admits it sometimes allows innovation to bubble up. For New York City, Berman says most of the credit for the steep decline in violent crime should stay in the city.
“Very few, if any, of the programmes described in this paper originated among federal officials in Washington, D.C.,” he says in the report. “Indeed, most were the product of frontline police chiefs, judges, and other criminal justice reformers responding in creative ways to the immediate problems in front of them.”
But he also believes the federal government can help cities. He praises Congress for authorizing funding to put more officers on the streets of New York City, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice for supporting intermediary organizations that provide training and assistance to what Berman calls “would-be reformers” in the community. He said that, no matter which party was in power at any time over the last 20 years, federal investments in community courts and policing have remained relatively consistent.
“This may be the ultimate lesson of the New York experience,” Berman wrote. “The ability of local reformers to generate a thousand small sanities and the consistent willingness of national government to encourage and sustain them over the long haul.”
With the Supreme Court set to hear oral arguments in a case that could determine the constitutionality of life sentences without parole for juveniles, a new report looks at the lives of the more than 2,300 people currently serving life sentences for crimes they committed before they turned 18.
“The goal was to find out more about who these people are, their community and background,” Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which produced the report, said during a conference call Wednesday.
Ashley Nellis, the report’s author and a research analyst at the Sentencing Project, said the intention was to highlight the individual stories of those serving sentences of life without parole.
“A lot of times we hear solely about the offense for which they are serving,” she said. “They are more than just their crime.”
Many came from troubled homes. According to the survey, nearly 80 percent of those serving juvenile life without parole sentences (JLWOP) experienced high levels of exposure to violence in their homes. More than half witnessed weekly violence in their neighborhoods.
“More than a quarter of those surveyed had a parent in prison,” Nellis said.
JLWOP sentences are fraught with controversy. Mark Osler, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and former federal prosecutor, points to research showing juveniles’ brains do not fully develop until they are in their 20s.
“The science we see emerging is propelling us to think of youth brains as different from adult brains,” Osler said. “We’re not looking at the same brain that is going to emerge later.”
The history of juvenile courts bears that out, Nellis said.
“We used to account for the important differences between youth and adults,” she said. “As a society we felt strongly that kids were different from adults and that’s why we developed a separate juvenile justice system. Now the system has shifted and we are quick to throw these kids’ lives away.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that JLWOP sentences were unconstitutional for all crimes except murder. But according to Nellis, the United States is no longer handling juvenile crime the best way possible.
“Overall,” she said, “our findings show that our society is off track in the way that we punish youth for their misdeeds.”
The system began to change in the 80s and 90s following an upswing in juvenile violent crime, Nellis said. Politicians warned of teenage “superpredators” and pushed for tougher sentences. But the statistics never caught up with the perception and the so-called superpredators “never arrived,” Nellis wrote in the report.
“We now know through this experiment that ‘tough on crime’ does not work,” she said during the conference call. “It doesn't work on young lives that are not done maturing.”
Juvenile life sentences also show “a disturbing racial disparity,” Nellis said. According to the report, the racial dynamics of victims and offenders may play a large role in determining if an offender receives a life sentence.
“The proportion of African Americans serving JLWOP sentences for the killing of a white person (43.4 percent),” Nellis writes in the report, “is nearly twice the rate at which African American juveniles are arrested for taking a white person’s life.”
Osler is concerned the sentence is given out too easily.
“When we think about a sentence we have to worry that it’s being used arbitrarily and that there are things such as race that are bubbling up,” he said.
Currently 33 state allow JLWOP sentences.
Also on the conference call was Linda White of Houston, whose daughter was murdered by two juveniles. Life sentences without parole were not an option when the offenders were sentenced. Over time, she said, one of the offenders showed significant growth and she now has a “caring relationship” with him.
“At the time [of sentencing] I probably would have been happy with a life without parole option had it been available,” she said. “I have a completely different opinion today. Today I believe that it is not only unscientific but inherently cruel to sentence juveniles to life sentences without the hope of parole or release.”
Sitting behind her strikingly barren desk, with the bright, mid-winter sunlight breaking through the trees and streaming through her office windows, Martha Grace Duncan, a professor at the Emory University School of Law, in Atlanta recounts the case of nine-year-old Cameron Kocher. As she speaks her small, compact frame remains nearly motionless, betraying no emotion. But her eyes tell the story, portraying the internal mix-up of sadness, passion and nerdy intensity that she feels about the topic. Duncan may not wear her heart on her sleeve, but if you pay attention it’s not hard to find.
In March 1989, on a cold, snowy day in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, Kocher fatally shot a seven-year-old playmate with a high-powered hunting rifle. He had been playing video games with the girl at her house when she told him that she was better at the game than he. Soon, the girl went outside to ride snowmobiles with other friends and Kocher, angry that his parents wouldn’t let him join them, retrieved the rifle from his father’s gun cabinet, loaded it and pointed it out the window of his home. Then, as the girl rode with a friend on a snowmobile, Kocher shot her in the back.
Minutes later, as the girl lay dying in her living room, Kocher returned to the girl’s house telling another playmate, “If you don’t think about it, you won’t be sad.”
As Kocher’s case progressed through the courts, many took the quote, coupled with the shooting, as evidence of a cold, remorseless child. Uttering that sentence would have severe repercussions for Kocher, beginning with the question of whether he would be treated as an adult by the courts.
In 2002, Duncan published a lengthy article for the Columbia Law Review that explored how expectations of displays of remorse affect how children are treated in the juvenile justice system, particularly in adjudication and sentencing. Duncan, who also holds a doctorate in political science, applied elements of psychology, sociology and literature to several case studies in the article.
Kocher’s petition to be transferred to juvenile court was denied, in part, because of his quote after the murder. After Kocher’s appeal was denied, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reviewed the case. In its opinion, the state’s high court declared, “He appeared to show no remorse for the crime.” (Cameron Kocher eventually pleaded no contest to felony criminal homicide and, as part of a plea agreement with the local district attorney, was convicted of misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter. He was placed on probation until he turned 21.)
Duncan said, when she read about Kocher’s case in The New York Times, she was startled that a child’s apparent lack of remorse would be used against him.
But in juvenile law, Duncan writes, remorse often figures prominently at a critical junction in the process called transfer—the decision whether to treat the child as an adult and send them to adult criminal court or keep them in the juvenile justice system.
Webster’s dictionary defines remorse as “a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs.” Contrition, similarly, is defined as “feeling or showing sorrow and remorse for a sin or shortcoming.”
Most adults can relate to that meaning—nobody’s perfect, after all—but at what age are we first capable of feeling remorse?
According to forensic psychiatrist Louis Kraus of the Rush Medical Center in Chicago, children do not develop a sense of remorse until they are five or six.
“Many kids have difficulty expressing a sense of remorse,” he said. “And many times that is because of trauma they have experienced.”
Kraus says the key is to understand brain development. The part of our brain that controls emotions does not finish growing until our early 20s. As a result, he says, teenagers may have a very difficult time understanding or expressing feelings of remorse.
“It is extremely important that a mental health professional examines any child that enters the court system,” Kraus said, particularly those who do not show remorse.
“Many kids would realize, if remorse plays a big role in their sentencing, to simply say how sorry they are and try to appear remorseful,” he said. “You have to ask yourself, when they don’t say that, what is going on with this kid? A comprehensive mental health assessment would help us understand.”
Kraus adds, “The reality is, a lot of these kids have difficulty with what they say and how they say it.”
Still, displays of contrition or remorse, Duncan writes, are a “legitimate argument” for leaving the child in the juvenile justice system. Children who appear to show remorse or guilt continue to be viewed as children. But children who show none of those emotions are seen as more sophisticated and mature. They may be transferred to the adult criminal justice system, a decision that could have monumental and long-lasting effects, including the possibility of life in prison without parole.
“Sometimes kids are expected to be innocents because of the romantic archetype of the child,” Duncan said.
She added, “In juvenile cases, and juvenile cases alone, sophistication is considered a bad thing. To the degree you [the child] are sophisticated, they [the juvenile justice system] are more likely to treat you as an adult.”
But Duncan contends children are not necessarily equipped to deal with feelings of guilt and remorse. They are particularly adept at using denial to bury strong feelings. The fact that they show no remorse is, in reality, a strong indicator of their immaturity.
She points to Cameron Kocher’s quote as an example.
“Even without any psychological training, one would think that could be an ambiguous comment,” she said. “For one thing, he seems to be trying to avoid feeling that.” It appeared to her, she said, as if Kocher was trying to bury the negative emotions he was feeling. It was a defense mechanism.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, juvenile courts were first created on the principle that children are inherently different than adults. Their brains are not fully developed, they are still learning and they are capable of rehabilitation.
Duncan explains children have a very difficult time showing remorse in cases of murder because of three undevelopedpieces of their development. The first is the “short sadness span,” a concept Martha Wolfenstein, the noted psychoanalyst and author, first put forth in the book, “Death of a Parent and Death of a President.” Wolfenstein said children are only able to endure painful emotions for very short periods of time.
“Just as their attention span is shorter than most adults,” Duncan said, “so their ability to remain in the painful affect of sadness or sorrow is not very long. When you start thinking about it, it’s kind of common sense.”
Once children cannot bear the feelings anymore, they use defense mechanisms to bury them. One of those defenses, and the second developmental piece Duncan discusses, is the tendency to use denial. Children are far more likely to use denial than adults, Duncan says. They push the painful feelings down and block them out because they are too much to bear, as Cameron Kocher seemingly did after fatally shooting his friend. His quote, “If you don’t think about it, you won’t be sad,” appears to indicate his use of denial to block whatever feelings he was experiencing, Duncan said.
The final piece of the puzzle is that children are not experienced enough to fully understand death. They may not think of it as permanent or irreversible and do not fully grasp what has happened.
“Researchers have not yet reached a definitive answer as to the age when most children comprehend death in these three sentences,” she writes.
When the three parts are combined, we often find a child acting cold or without compassion, maybe making jokes at inappropriate times as in the case of Gina Grant who Duncan also writes about. In 1990, when Grant was 14-years-old, she murdered her mother, a violent alcoholic who had recently threatened to kill her. That morning, Grant repeatedly bashed her mother over the head with a heavy candlestick. Later, as a police officer escorted Grant in handcuffs to the restroom she joked, “Don’t worry, I don’t have any body parts in my pocket.” When the sheriff caught wind of Grant’s joke, he concluded she was a “sociopath with no conscious.”
But for many children, the outward face of their emotion may be very different than what they feel inside. Still, society expects to see certain emotions at certain times. However, people, and children especially, are not always equipped to handle intense feelings of grief or remorse immediately. Funerals are an excellent example, Duncan says.
“I find it hard to believe that, in that hour, everyone is feeling grief,” she said. Some of the mourners may indeed feel sadness and grief at that moment, but many more will experience that at another time, in a more private way, she added.
Duncan says she can identify with the struggle to show the proper emotion. The day after her father’s death, she writes in her article, when she was still a young college student, she went to her classes at Columbia University just as she would any other day. Those who knew her and knew of her father’s death looked at her strangely because she showed no signs of grief.
“Actually, I showed no grief because I felt none, and did not for a long time,” she wrote. It was more than a year before she began to feel any strong emotions about her father’s death, and when she did they came forth like a flood.
But this was not the first time she had difficulty displaying the proper emotion.
“Growing up,” she said, “I was never quite having the right reactions, according to my family. They always wanted me to express more feeling. And at the time I was super-intellectual and super-analytical and so I wasn’t having the right reactions, according to them.”
Her experience rendered her uniquely capable of studying what happens to children caught up in the justice system who, like herself, didn’t show the “right reaction.” But for these kids, the consequences are far more serious than a few strange looks. And Duncan is very aware that had things gone horribly wrong early in her life, a judge or jury might have been taking silent note of her own emotionless countenance.
“Fortunately,” she wrote in her matter-of-fact style, “no legal ramifications flowed from my earlier failure to exhibit sadness.”
So, Duncan asks, is it fair to decide a child should be treated as an adult in the eyes of the court when they show no remorse in the days and hours after a death when they are likely incapable of displaying that emotion?
Reading about Kocher’s case started her thinking, she said. How many times has remorse played a role? With the help of a research assistant, Duncan searched for juvenile cases in which the word “remorse” showed up. The team came across more than 200. And there could be hundreds more, Duncan said, because the search didn’t include similar words such as “contrition” or “sorrow.”
More troubling still, how many times did innocent children, who could not show remorse for a crime they did not commit, have their emotions used against them?
“To what extent does the state have the right to demand that you share your interior space with the state?” Duncan asks. “Remorse is not a term of art like ‘malice aforethought’. We can’t just change the statutes, because there often aren’t any statutes.”
She added, “What’s particularly odd was that [the courts] never define remorse. They rarely explain why they got that impression [of the child].”
There is almost no way to know in how many cases remorse has been a determining factor. The internal rationale of judges and juries, Duncan says, is most often just that: internal. And in reality, it may be only one factor of many that contribute to a young person’s sentence.
Duncan is currently working on a book that will delve deeper into the question of remorse and the law. The new book will expand on what she has already written but will also tackle new areas, including how remorse is used in parole hearings.