Category: life without parole

Death penalty opponents need to read this

Courtroom sketch of Sam Hurd

A new ACLU study highlights the consequences of sentencing non-violent offenders to Life without parole (commonly known as LWOP).  Here’s the lede:

For 3,278 people, it was nonviolent offenses like stealing a $159 jacket or serving as a middleman in the sale of $10 of marijuana. An estimated 65% of them are Black. Many of them were struggling with mental illness, drug dependency or financial desperation when they committed their crimes. None of them will ever come home to their parents and children. And taxpayers are spending billions to keep them behind bars.

On a related note, Doug Berman notes that Sam Hurd, who once caught passes for the Dallas Cowboys, could be sentenced to life without parole after pleading guilty to a single drug transaction in April.  Hurd actually received a sentence of fifteen years, but because his case involved a large quantity of drugs, life was an option.  Hundreds of non-violent offenders have not been so lucky. (more…)

A mother’s thoughts on life-imprisonment for children

By Pierre R. Berastain

The United States Supreme Court ruled this past month that children cannot receive life-without-parole sentences.  The following letter from a mother appeared on Douglas A. Berman’s blog.  In 1986, Dr. Linda White’s daughter was abducted, raped, and murdered.  In 2000, Dr. White met her daughter’s killer thanks to Bridges to Life, an organization that employs the practices of restorative justice and victim-offender dialogue to help victims of crime heal by allowing them to meet their perpetrators.

On June 25, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs that it is cruel and unusual to impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences on children.  As a mother whose daughter was murdered by two teenage boys, I speak for many victims’ family members who support the Court’s sound decision.

I certainly never imagined that I would become a passionate advocate against life imprisonment without parole for juvenile offenders. I had never confronted the issue until November 18, 1986, the day my world was forever changed when my 26-year-old daughter Cathy, then pregnant with her second child, was killed by two teenage boys.

This tragedy set me on an unlikely path that led me to discover that even youths who commit the worst crimes have the capacity to grow into mature, redeemed adults.  I know this because I watched my daughter’s killer, Gary, become such an adult.

I spent the years following Cathy’s death studying to become a grief counselor.  I became involved in a restorative justice program, Bridges to Life, that allows convicts and crime victims to open a dialogue and work toward reconciliation.  In 2000, I opened myself up to this dialogue with Gary.

When I met Gary, I found that he was a very different person from the boy who once committed a horrible act.  He was a remorseful grown man desperately seeking forgiveness and a chance to make up for the hurt he caused.  My decision to forgive Gary does not mean that what happened is OK.  It can never be OK, and Gary knows that as well as I do.  But keeping him in prison for a longer period would not bring my daughter back.

Gary has now been out of prison for over a year.  He has since dedicated himself to being a positive influence in his community, including working with drug and alcohol addicts at his church.  He regularly tells me that he wants to live a good, impactful life as a “memorial” to my daughter.

Gary is a poster child for why I believe life sentences are so unjust for juveniles.  I have seen that youth have enormous potential to change, and that we should not lock them up without giving them a second chance.

I have also seen that my story is not unique.  I was one of many victims’ family members who appealed to the Supreme Court to do away with juvenile life-without-parole sentences.  While each of our experiences are different, we are united in our belief that keeping children like Gary permanently locked away only compounds the ugliness of crime with the ugliness of hopeless prison sentences.

I strongly believe that young offenders need to be held accountable for their actions. But it is wrong to sentence them to punishments that fail to take into consideration their age and capacity for change.  By denying children the opportunity to someday earn release, you are telling these kids, as Justice Ginsburg stated, that they are throwaway kids.  As they go before judges for resentencing, factors that were dismissed before, such as their age at the time of the crime, their histories of abuse and neglect and their roles in the crime must be considered.  I will feel a sense of calm that children who made tragic mistakes will have an opportunity to be judged by more than their worst act.

Even though he committed an unspeakable crime, Gary was not a throwaway kid.  Had he been sentenced to life-without-parole, he would never have been able to become a living memorial to Cathy.

“I forgive you, and God will, too.” These were the last words Cathy spoke before her death.  I know Cathy would be gratified to see Gary have a second chance and become the positive member of society that he is today.

Stories of redemption like Gary’s are testaments to why the Supreme Court got it right by prohibiting mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children.  The Court has taken an important step in upholding America’s promise to never give up on our children.

The following is part 1/4 of Meeting with a Killer, a brief documentary on Dr. White’s experience.

Supreme Court addresses Juvenile Life without Parole issue

Matthew Bentley was fourteen when he shot an killed the owner of a home he thought was unoccupied

It appears I was misled by some of the early AP reporting on the Court’s ruling.  Here is law professor Mark Osler’s clarification as it appeared on his blog.  AGB

Yesterday, the Supreme Court struck down part (but not all) of the Arizona immigration law. That gobbled up a lot of the news cycle.

Buried beneath that story was another dramatic decision. The Supreme Court also issued its opinion in Miller v. Alabama, ruling that it is unconstitutional for a state to use a mandatory sentencing scheme which mandates life without parole sentences where the defendant was a juvenile at the time of the crime. This affects a lot of cases– 29 states and the federal government have such sentencing schemes.

Unfortunately, initial reports (over the AP wire and elsewhere) said that all JLWOP sentences were struck down, but that is not true. Sentences where the judge or jury had other options available (such as life with parole) seem to survive this decision.

My commentary on this important can be found over at the motherlode of sentencing info, Doug Berman’s Sentencing Law and Policy blog.

Bryan Stephenson of the Equal Justice Institute summed up today’s ruling by the Supreme Court nicely,

“The court took a significant step forward by recognizing the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that don’t allow sentencers to consider the unique status of children and their potential for change.  The court has recognized that children need additional attention and protection in the criminal justice system.” (more…)

Growing old behind bars

By Alan Bean

It is good to see Human Rights Watch tackling the issue of aging prisoners.  I will never forget talking to Joe Moore, a brittle diabetic with bad knees, through the Plexiglass in the visitation room of a Texas prison.  The folks handling the medical contract for the state prison system were trying to cut expenses.  A doctor decided to take Joe off his insulin to see if he really needed the medication.  First Joe lost his balance; then his tongue doubled in size, then his eyesight went.  When Joe told the guards he was too sick to work, they forced him to dress and join the kitchen detail.  Joe tried to comply, but he fell unconscious to the floor of his cell and came within a whisker of death.  Without influential supporters in the free world, Joe would have died behind bars.

Joe Moore died a few years after being exonerated and released from prison.  His friends were with him and he was able to buy a little farm and work his own cattle after release.  He left this world with his dignity intact.

And then I think of Ramsey Muniz, the Latino politician and civil rights legend currently housed in a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas.  Ramsey is 70 years old and can’t walk without the help of a cane.  Like Joe Moore, Muniz is the victim of a shady drug bust and a rigged trial.  But what if, like most prisoners, Joe and Ramsey were guilty as charged?  Does it make any sense to warehouse aging men and women, at an average cost of $50,000 a year, who no longer represent a threat to public safety?

The excellent eight-part series on Louisiana incarceration in the Times-Picayune emphasized the growing geriatric wing of the state’s notorious Angola prison.  Decades of life without parole sentencing have created a pitiless system bereft of compassion and common sense.

In her summary of the 110-page report she produced for Human Rights Watch, Jamie Fellner underscores the senseless horror of forcing thousands of elderly offenders to die behind bars.

Among the more than 26,000 state and federal prisoners aged 65 or older are some who have severe physical and mental impairments.  One 87-year-old I met last year while conducting research on older prisoners could not tell me his name. He had been in prison for 27 years, 20 of them in a special unit because of his severe cognitive impairments.  I met prisoners who were dying and could not breathe without assistance; prisoners so old and frail they needed help getting up from their bed and into their wheelchairs; prisoners who lacked the mental and physical ability to bathe or eat or go to the bathroom by themselves.

Frail and Elderly Prisoners: Do They Still Belong Behind Bars?

As the US confronts a growing population of geriatric prisoners, it is time to reconsider whether they really need to be locked up. Prison keeps dangerous people off the streets. But how many prisoners whose minds and bodies have been whittled away by age are dangerous? (more…)

A Life Not Lived

By Olivia Lennox

A Life Not Lived

On January 3rd the campaigning organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report entitled ‘Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life without Parole Sentences in the United States’.  It is based on research conducted over a six year period, and it makes interesting and sometimes shocking reading.

The report deals with the plight of children incarcerated in adult prisons who due to the sentence they have received have no or at least very little prospect of ever seeing the outside world again.  They estimate there to be 2570 such young offenders in this position at the present time. HRW does not question the fact that the people their report deals with are offenders and that they should be punished for their crimes, but they do question the imposition of a life without parole sentence on such young people, and they also highlight the treatment and experiences those young people face.

Physical Violence

Building on previous studies it is established that under-eighteens in adult prison are, “twice as likely to be beaten by staff and fifty percent more likely to be attacked with a weapon than minors in juvenile facilities.”  Numerous examples are given of evidence provided by inmates that puts such statistics into a personal context.  Amongst them is that of Michael S., who was seventeen when he entered prison.  He wrote that:  ‘On several occasions I have been physically assaulted. I reported the first assault, but from that point forward I deduced that it was best to remain silent as I cannot afford to be labeled [an informant] in my current circumstances.’    (more…)