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Reconsidering Life Sentences for Juveniles who Kill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jamriska and others have voiced a legitimate concern that post-Miller resentencing hearings will force victims’ families to "relive the horrors again."

One option is for these hearings to be narrowly focused on the offender – the young person’s background, the circumstances of the crime, and his or her role in the offense – rather than publicly reexamining the pain and loss experienced by the victims. Another option is for victim impact statements and other documentary evidence introduced at the original sentencing hearing to be considered anew, making it unnecessary for the victims' families to be physically present in court. Although hardly perfect, such procedures may provide the first steps toward an acceptable solution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Birckhead’s commentary is also posted at the Huffington Post

New York Governor Urges State to Decriminalize Low-Level Marijuana Possession

Last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his support of a change to state law that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana in public view.

Gov. Cuomo made his announcement at a news conference last week at the state capitol in Albany . Also supporting the legislative change was New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who said she has plans to pass a resolution denouncing “unlawful” marijuana arrests. Currently, the state’s legislative session is scheduled to conclude on June 21.

Last year, New York City police made more than 50,000 arrests for low-level marijuana possession, ultimately accounting for one out of every seven arrests in the nation’s largest city in 2011.

According to recent estimates, marijuana possession arrests are believed to cost New York City an annual average of $75 million. While the proposed legislative changes would no longer make low-level marijuana possession an offense punishable by arrest, those found with small amounts of marijuana - under Cuomo’s proposal, 25 grams or less - would be fined upwards of $100 under the new law. Public marijuana smoking and possession of marijuana in public view, however, would remain misdemeanors under Cuomo’s proposal.

Over the last 10 years, New York City has totaled more than 400,000 low-level marijuana arrests, easily eclipsing the city’s low-level marijuana arrests stretching from the late 1970s until Bloomberg’s mayoral period began. Additionally, many advocates and activists cite the state’s current possession laws as racially biased, with approximately 86 percent of those arrested for low-level possession in New York City being people of color.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told The New York Times that the continual arrest of young people for low-level marijuana possession would result in major employment and educational difficulties for the state’s youth once they become adults.

“For individuals who have any kind of record, even a minuscule one, the obstacles are enormous,” she said. “When it’s really a huge number of kids in the community who go through this, and all have the same story, the impact is just devastating.”

Photo from Global Grind

Summer is Here and Concussion Season is Right Around the Corner

My fifth grader, Mark, suddenly developed an obsession. He was determined to try out for the local park district football team. He began doing pushups and running around the block doing sprints with his buddy, Joey.

As a single parent, I was more than uneasy about his desire and fervently hoped it was a phase. It wasn’t. After the tryouts Mark and Joey both made the team.  After the tryouts, he became the proud owner of a uniform, cleats, pads and thankfully, a sturdy new football helmet.

We both anxiously prepared for the first day of practice, but not before a hilarious episode of shopping for a “cup” at the local sports store. If you haven’t done this as a single mother, you haven’t lived. Seriously how do they size those things?

Joey’s mom, Rose, and I nervously drove our boys to the practice field to meet Coach Lewis and the other boys who had made the team. For a while, it was only practicing, but before we knew it we were scheduled to play a preseason game.

Rose and I set up our lawn chairs to watch the action on the field and to watch our boys learn the fundamentals of their first full-contact sport. Mark’s last foray into organized sports was t-ball as a first grader. He concentrated more on the hot dogs and ice cream sold at the concession stand than the ball-playing.  That was a long time ago and there wasn’t a whole lot of hurting going on in t-ball.

Our boys ended up playing center (Joey) and nose guard (Mark). Talk about being in the thick of things. Usually after the ball was snapped, one or both of our boys ended up at the bottom of a pile of massive kids. Like most moms, Rose and I worried about injuries. Our hearts almost stopped simultaneously when a young man from another team was knocked unconscious by a vicious hit.  The wail of an ambulance was heard in the distance coming to the field to take him to the hospital.

MORE: Brain Injury Association

A concussion was one of my worst fears. Break my boy’s arm, but Heaven forbid that you hurt his brain. Concussions are now considered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that can cause serious injury or even death. The New York Times, reporting on the issue of injury and death from youth sports identified more than 50 young athletes who were severely injured or even died after playing youth sports. According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta almost “…75 percent of all TBIs each year are concussions or other forms of mild TBI.” And, because of the high incidence of young boys playing sports, emergency room visits are more likely to be boys than girls.

MORE: Center for Disease Control, “Heads Up: Concussion in Youth Sports” 

What’s a parent to do? Wrap the child in cotton batting and place a video controller in his hand? That might be safer than putting a football helmet on his head, but not necessarily the right choice. First, be an informed sports parent. Check your youth program to see if they have a written concussion protocol. Even the National Football League, looking at the over 21 percent increase in concussions on the field, developed a “Go or No Go” test which can be quickly performed by medical professionals on the sidelines.

MORE: New guidelines used by the NFL

Check with your coaches to find out the level of their training to identify this potentially serious injury. However, the best prevention as a parent is preparation. Be an informed parent and understand the warning signs of your child experiencing a concussion. Warning signs include confusion, forgetfulness, dizziness and clumsiness. If your son or daughter cannot follow simple directions such as touching a nose with a finger or cannot recall events immediately before or after an event, he should be evaluated by a doctor. This is especially critical if there was any loss of consciousness.

MORE: Interactive map from the New York Times on serious Youth Sports Injuries

Many athletes report seeing double or having blurry vision, having a headachy feeling or sensing pressure in their brain, vomiting or nausea and a difficulty walking. Sensitivity to light or sound also signals that the brain may have experienced trauma.

In the thick of competitive pressure during a game, parents or coaches can feel compelled to put a star athlete back into the game, even after a concussive event. Be your child’s advocate and err on the side of caution by keeping them out of the game. As the CDC says, “It’s better to miss one game than the whole season.”

Rose and I were lucky football moms. Our boys played a couple of seasons and missed out on having anything above aches and bruises. Other parents and athletes aren’t as lucky. Stay safe and cover your kids' heads, even when doing solo activities, such as biking or skateboarding.  I’ve seen the inside of a brain injury hospital and its residents. The consequences of not wearing helmets aren’t pretty. As a concerned parent, be your child’s advocate and protect the head.

School Administrators Fear New Jersey Anti-Bullying Law Goes Too Far

Credit: Creative Commons via Chesi Photo

A new state law in New Jersey is considered the toughest anti-bullying legislation in the country. Seen by many parents and educators as a welcome change, many administrators are concerned the law goes too far, according to The New York Times.

The legislation, known as the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, is partially a response to the suicide one year ago by Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi after his roommate secretly filmed Clementi kissing another man and streamed the incident over the Internet.

Superintendents worry the law, which requires schools to designate anti-bullying specialists to handle complaints, will stretch schools’ resources too far.

“I think this has gone well overboard,” Richard G. Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, told The Times. “Now we have to police the community 24 hours a day. Where are the people and the resources to do this?”

But supporters of the law say, as bullying spreads from the playground to the Internet, schools should do more to help stop the spread of conflicts, according to The Times.

Many N.J. school employees attended training sessions over the summer to better understand the new policies that include 18 pages of “required components.”