Monday’s 5-4 Supreme Court decision disallowing mandatory life sentences without parole for defendants convicted of murder perpetrated before their 18th birthday moves us significantly closer to a rational system for punishing young offenders. It provides hope for hundreds of prisoners around the country, including more than 60 in Massachusetts, who until now saw no chance of ever walking free.
Massachusetts is one of 28 states impacted by the Court’s decision in not considering mitigating factors and special circumstances that might warrant parole eligibility. Belying the undeserved reputation for being soft on crime, the Commonwealth arguably has the nation’s stiffest sanction for juvenile murder. Anyone as young as 14 charged with murder is automatically tried as an adult, and if convicted of first degree murder, receives a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
The decision potentially opens the cell door someday for a prisoner like Joe Donovan, Jr., who was given a life sentence for his part in a mugging two decades ago during which an accomplice fatally stabbed the victim. The decision also could affect someone like Kentel Weaver who received an automatic life sentence for his involvement in a murderous joint venture, despite the fact that he voluntarily came forward and confessed to the police his role in the unsolved crime.
The ruling provides flexibility for exceptional cases like John Odgren, a developmentally challenged youngster who stabbed a schoolmate to death at Lincoln-Sudbury High. Upon condemning Odgren to his lifelong fate, the trial judge went on record bemoaning the lack of any alternative option for handling his special circumstances.FULL ENTRY
The positive impact of the “Play Ball” initiative on the scholastic performance of youngsters in Boston’s middle schools (see Globe story) is stunning, but hardly surprising. For too many years, we have over-emphasized standardized test scores -- treating them as the gold standard, if not the only standard, for assessing quality in education -- at the expense of other areas of physical, emotional and intellectual development.
While no one will deny the supreme importance of the basic subjects -- English, math and science. But a focus on test scores over all else places academically marginal students at-risk to skip school and ultimately leave school altogether. And the effects on truancy and drop-out on delinquency are obvious.
The results of “Play Ball” clearly demonstrate the many lessons that athletic participation can offer concerning cooperation and responsibility to a group. Youngsters who are constantly challenged and frustrated by traditional academics can derive both enjoyment and a sense of self-worth on the athletic field, giving them a reason to get up and out to school in the morning.
But let’s not forget the other extra-curricular areas -- for example, art, drama, and music. We need violins in schools (as opposed to violence). These pursuits can also be of great value for youngsters who struggle athletically and are seeking an alternative niche, purpose and direction. The “back to basics” movement has assigned these subjects second-tier status; when trimming budgets they are often viewed as expendable frills.
Tomorrow morning, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases, Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, challenging the controversial practice of sentencing juvenile offenders to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Hopefully, the Court will resist the common visceral response to youth violence and consider the scientific evidence that, as compared with adults, adolescents are less equipped to contemplate the consequences of their crimes, are more susceptible to pressure from peers to engage in behaviors they would not ordinarily commit on their own, and may, therefore, someday earn a second chance.
It has been decades since state legislatures around the country overreacted to the late-1980s surge in youth violence by expanding the pool of juveniles who could be tried and punished as if they were adults. Several criminologists (with me among them) had warned that juvenile crime rates could continue to surge if there were not a deep and determined investment in youth development. Unfortunately, most politicians took an alternative approach, emphasizing punishment rather than prevention.
The wholesale transfer of juveniles to the jurisdiction of the criminal court was supported by the catchy, yet illogical slogan, “adult time for adult crime.” Juveniles may look like adults, talk like adults, and even kill like adults, but they reason like the immature kids they are really are. Adolescents are not just a smaller version of adults.
The turn of the calendar always brings news about how crime levels have trended over the previous year. And like many cities around the country, Boston witnessed fewer crimes in 2011 than 2010, including a double-digit drop in homicide.
With crime rates at a 50-year low, this is a good time to re-examine our criminal justice policies, especially those measures implemented in a knee-jerk fashion when crime rates and higher levels of fear were peaking. We should begin in the areas that are a significant drain on the budget, such as our over-reliance on lengthy prison terms for juvenile murderers who, after decades of incarceration, no longer pose a danger to society. And this is hardly a left-wing, soft-on-crime idea, as even conservatives like Newt Gingrich have argued that we can't afford to continue pouring vast sums of tax dollars into prison systems.
Currently under consideration by the Massachusetts Joint Committee on the Judiciary is a pair of bills (S. 672 and H. 1346) that would eliminate sentences of life without parole for juvenile murderers. Under the existing statute, passed back in 1996, all juveniles as young as 14 convicted of first degree murder -- including felony-murder and acts committed by accomplices -- are hopelessly ineligible for parole consideration.
In its breadth and rigidity, Massachusetts law stands as one of the very stiffest in the nation. The proposed juvenile justice reform would directly impact the 59 juvenile murderers currently locked up for life in Massachusetts prisons. If the legislation is passed and signed into law, the Massachusetts parole board would be empowered to grant second chances to juvenile murderers, that is, of course, only if deserving of such after lengthy incarceration.
An amendment to the Senate parole reform bill (S.2054) debated today included a provision to grant parole eligibility to juveniles convicted of murder. Unfortunately, and to the disappointment of amender Sen. Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester), that provision was dropped.FULL ENTRY
The response to my last blog post--a call to abolish life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers in Massachusetts--was lively and contentious. While many readers concurred with the goal of better aligning our state with the rest of the nation, some would have Massachusetts remain one of the harshest and most punitive when it comes to sentencing youth.
The negative tenor of certain reader comments was unsurprising, not because introducing parole eligibility for juvenile murderers is in any way a radical idea. Rather the unwillingness of some folks to consider he reforms proposed in S. 672 and H. 1346 (An Act Relative to the Sentencing of Children), is based on an array of misconceptions and falsehoods about juvenile justice.FULL ENTRY
The existing Massachusetts law for trying and punishing juveniles charged with murder, arguably the stiffest in the United States in terms of breadth and rigidity, was enacted amidst a climate of fear fueled by wide-ranging media hype about juvenile violence. Not only was the 1996 statute crafted in the wake of a particularly heinous juvenile murder case locally, but lawmakers around the country responded to warnings about the increasing numbers of the young and the ruthless.
As it happened, the early 1990s spike in juvenile homicide did not persist, but vanished as the new millennium approached. The 1990s drop in juvenile murder has been linked to smarter policing, crack-downs on illegal gun trafficking, increased anti-gang efforts, successful crime prevention programming, demographic trends, and especially shifting drug markets, but not to changes in the way in which juveniles were prosecuted.
In a much-anticipated decision on a free-speech challenge of a California law banning the sale or rental of violent video games to minors, the U.S. Supreme Court got it right. Voting 7-2 in favor of the gaming industry, the Court majority ruled that the evidence suggesting that games like Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto pose a significant harm to minors is weak and inconclusive.
It can be tempting to try to implicate the mass media—especially video games—for various stunning episodes of extreme violence. A Gallup poll taken in the wake of the April 1999 Columbine massacre found that 62% of the over 1,000 adults surveyed nationwide felt that entertainment media was a major cause for school and youth violence. Moreover, 83% supported restrictions on sales of violent media to children, the very kind of restrictions that passed the California legislature in 2005.
It hardly seems like a dozen years since the April 20, 1999 Columbine massacre in which Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris turned a Denver-suburban high school into their personal battle ground, killing 12 students and one teacher, before committing suicide. Despite the fact that today’s high school students are too young to recall the event and to have watched the horrible tragedy unfold as it was broadcasted live by TV news crews, the shooting continues to impact the way in which schools operate.
Educators across America have been compelled to invest large sums of money in security devices that are of questionable value, such as metal detectors that don’t deter and surveillance systems that don’t function. Meanwhile, they continue to trim budgets for the more fundamental needs, such as books and faculty.
And many schools across America still launch so-called “Columbine drills” to prepare their students for such a icatastrophe in the same way that an earlier generation of students was trained for a possible A-Bomb through regular air-raid simulations. There is little reason to believe that such lockdown drills do anything other than frighten and traumatize impressionable children. At the same time, several private entrepreneurs have developed personal safety equipment for students, including bullet-resistant backpacks and body shields.
In terms of today’s “best practice” security strategies, Columbine High School was fairly well-prepared even in advance of the shooting spree. It was equipped with a surveillance camera system, which apparently served no other role than to capture dark images of Klebold and Harris taking aim inside the school cafeteria. Columbine also employed an armed school resource officer, but he could do little to protect a sprawling campus that enrolled 1,400 students.FULL ENTRY
It is all too easy, while spending decades writing about violence and those who perpetrate horrible crimes, to lose touch with the pain and suffering of victims. And when researching and analyzing murder for a living, the victims and their stories often seem like footnotes to the larger questions of “who did it?” and “why?” Just as surgeons must separate themselves emotionally from their work in the operating room, career true-crime writers and journalists must maintain a certain emotional distance in order to stay focused on the most inhumane acts imaginable.
At the same time, there is the danger of becoming overly dispassionate. A certain level of sensitivity is necessary to appreciate the mix of horror and tragedy that underlies the crimes we examine. For that reason, it is a good idea occasionally to attend the funerals of murder victims, those whose demise serves as the basis for our craft.
Two primary areas of my work over many years have been urban youth violence and family mass murder. And so I attended today’s funeral in Winchester for the four members of the Stone/Mortimer family murdered last week allegedly by their husband/father/son-in-law, just as I did last month for 14-year-old Jaewon Martin who was gunned down in Dorchester while playing basketball.