The Beef: Juvenile Life Sentence Without Parole is Insane day after my first post on this topic, NPR did a feature story on it.  Here are my favorite excerpts from the transcript, plus educational videos, infographics, law articles, brain science facts, sentencing alternatives, and more.  (Get a cup of coffee and sit back.  This is about 3,600 words.  But lots of eye candy, too.)

Listen to the NPR piece, States Are Spotty in Following High Court Lead on Juvenile Sentencing (April 16, 2014),  an interview by Robert Siegel with Dr. Cara Drinan, law professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.  You can see Dr. Drinan discussing the issue with John McArdle at C-SPAN TV, in their January 25, 2014 program, Young Offenders and Life Sentences.  In that show, she responded to viewer inquiries on the topic.

TakePart-Infographic-1Robert Siegel reports, “As the [U.S. Supreme Court] held … children are constitutionally different from adults, for purposes of sentencing, because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on aspects of the matter in 2010 and 2012.  In 2010 the court found it unconstitutional for juveniles to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole except in cases of murder.  (Kids are adults when they murder people.)  In 2012, it held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders, even for murder.  In 2005 they got the bright idea that capital punishment was unfair to kids, too.  Killing a kid for killing is just killing.  Putting a kid away for life without possibility of parole is just revenge for something we don’t know how to cope with in other ways … but there are other ways (more on that at the end of this post)


cara drinan c-span smNo surprise that the nation is far from full implementation of the court’s bans.  Some challenges to the court’s Swiss cheese decisions will require further rulings.  As if they could not have foreseen it.

Have can will kick.

Dr. Drinan offered an example of efforts to evade the court’s ruling:

… in Iowa, the governor determined, OK, we have a set number of individuals who have received this now-unconstitutional sentence. What we’ll do is simply commute the sentences to term-of-years sentences and call it a day. And so that is in fact what happened in Iowa. All of the juvenile offenders who were serving life without parole, their sentences were commuted to 60 year terms.

She continued,

… in Iowa, the State Supreme Court did, in fact, agree with the defendants in [a case where they] challenged those commutations, and said that’s an overreach on the governor’s part, and it’s not in keeping with what the Supreme Court intended. So those individuals are now seeking individual re-sentences. Although, I have to say, they have not had much luck before the parole board in Iowa.

Now, getting back to the slash-and-stabber case I mentioned in my first post, Siegel and Drinan said:


Click to learn the US kid jailing pattern (when it opens, click again to enlarge)

SIEGEL: In Pennsylvania, earlier this month, there was a notorious mass stabbing at a high school for which a 16-year-old was charged. And he was charged as an adult, which seems typical. That is, many people seem to think that juvenile justice is for kids who steal cars for joy rides, or kids who shoplift. But that if there is a seriously violent crime you should automatically try the child as an adult. What does the court actually say about that?

DRINAN: Well, I think it’s only recently that the court has taken a position on that. For decades, you’re absolutely right. The sort of majority view in this country was if you do an adult crime, you will do adult time.

The court has said in its recent opinions, to which you referred earlier, that that does not make sense. That brain science in this day and age tells us that children at 16, at 17, they simply don’t have behavior control, impulse control, the capacity to assess risk and plan ahead. That they’re fundamentally different in the eyes of the law and that our sentencing practices need to reflect that. [emphasis mine]

TakePart-Infographic-3“if you do an adult crime, you will do adult time”

What is “an adult crime?”  The notion of “adult crime” is senseless, except on Wall Street, and in matters that violate the terms of licenses, permits or authorities granted only to adults.  Even rape is not limited to the capacity of adults.

Magically, a child becomes an adult even when they are alleged to have committed a so-called adult crime.  Recall the phrase, “charged as an adult” and “tried as an adult.”  The more you think about it, the more ridiculous it gets.

Isn’t this “playing adult” part of the way a child thinks when they are doing so-called “adult” things like boozing, smoking, cussing, putting on makeup and high-heels, shooting, killing, playing war?  Doing it makes them feel like an adult, or at least they’re having fun making believe.

child fingerprintingThat makes it childish, or at best childlike, for us to think a child is adult-like when they commit a so-called adult crime, or any other so-called adult activity.  We’re supposed to know that running around yelling bang-bang at each other does not make them soldiers.

But if they are 13 or more years old, and they hack Daddy in the jugular and the aorta with axes, then they are adults until proven children in a court of law.

We know that doing adult activities does not make them adults, but we say that doing so-called adult crimes that actually are not adult-only crimes — kids are capable of murder, too — makes them adults.  That’s insane.

Who says murder is an adult-only activity?  How many serious violent crimes are, or ever have been, truly limited to the sole capacity of adulthood?

The issue is not whether it’s “an adult crime,” or horrible enough to be an adult crime (isn’t it even more horrible when a child murders?).  The issue is whether a mind — a mental capacity, a bio-psycho-social condition, a bio-physical state of the brain — of a certain level of development toward maturity should be treated as if it were already matured, as an exception for some prosecution purposes.

It’s not rational.  We’re like children when we come to such stupid conclusions.  Worse than children, because we’re supposed to be adults.  They’re not.

The lowest age I’ve heard of so far is 13 for a child sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole — or the chance to appeal for retrial as a juvenile.  After all, once an adult, always an adult.

Now you know why the defender of “truth, justice and the American Way” is a fictional flying super-hero in red and blue tights and a cape.  Somebody had to do it.

toy gun kids smWe think like children in lots of things.  Take, for instance, the toys we buy them.  Even with the camo outfit and shooting glasses!  (See the full photo at

Note that Professor Drinan has the gall to say that this juvenile sentencing thing is a matter of brain science.

Ah, so what?  What’s science got to do with it?  As with global climate change and evolution, the science here will be brainlessly dismissed by people whose emotions, beliefs, religions (I’m so sick of hearing “an eye for an eye” misapplied out of context), and political expediency incline them to continue treating children as adults, when it is convenient.

It’s often convenient to be barbaric.  I’m barbaric sometimes, when I’m out of my mind.  (Really.  It happens.)

When we begin to treat severely violent crime less like a case of cockroaches and more like a case of traumatic brain injury, we will have reached a higher plateau of civilization (assuming that we radically reform the medical industry, too).

synapsesThe science says that the human brain does not reach full adult maturity until after adolescence, as we usually define it.  It takes 20 years or more for a brain to fully develop (and there’s still room to “grow” after that, too).  Ask your car insurance company.

(Truly, then, they are college kids.  But we don’t call them kids in the Army, until they’re dead.)

Do we need science to tell us?  Were we not teenagers?  Michigan attorney Cary S. McGehee, fighting for retroactive juvenile fair sentencing in her state’s supreme court, said it.  “Science knows that the juvenile mind is not developed the same as an adult’s mind. We know that because we’ve all been juveniles at one time in our lives.”  (CBS Detroit, March 6, 2014: Is Sentencing Juveniles To Life Behind Bars Cruel And Unusual? Michigan Supreme Court To Decide)

Still some powerful people will deny the science, even despite the occasionally bright conclusions of the heel-dragging U.S. Supreme Court.  The CBS Detroit report says that McGehee’s opponent in court, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, “argues that those teenagers [up for life without parole] were given a fair trial, as well as a fair sentence.”

1690 drawing by Govard Bidloo (1649-1713) Public domain source

1690 drawing by Govard Bidloo (1649-1713) Public domain

What does the science say?  Bill Nye was out, so we consulted an article in the University of Cincinnati Law Review blog, and the scholarly science papers its author consulted.  From the article (posted on January 30, 2014), The Science Behind Juvenile Life without Parole: Why the Supreme Court of Ohio Should Find the Sentence Unconstitutional by Cameron Downer, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review:

In 1999, scientists used structural imaging to demonstrate that adolescent brains are still in a developmental stage, disproving the “ingrained scientific belief that such maturation was largely complete in early childhood.”[1] These studies identified four specific neurological factors that contribute to juvenile behavior.

(Structural imaging shows the location and intensity of brain activities.)

First, juveniles’ frontal lobes are not fully developed and will not be developed until they are in their early 20’s.[2] As a result, juveniles have an innate deficiency in imagining the future or long term consequences of their actions.[3] Second, juveniles go through dramatic hormone and emotional changes, especially during the adolescent period that starts in the early teenage years. At this time, testosterone, which is associated with aggression in juvenile boys, increases tenfold.[4] Therefore, juveniles are more predisposed to value the rewards of risky behavior without fully considering the risks.[5] Third, the connection between the frontal cortices and the areas of the brain associated with social and emotional processing is weak. This weak connection contributes to poor impulse control and decreased emotional regulation. [6]  Fourth, juveniles experience a “maturity gap” during the period after puberty, but before the brain is fully developed. This occurs when an adolescent has a sexually mature body and hormonally activated brain, but lacks adult-level mental skills, such as defusing anger or foreseeing consequences. This causes the adolescent’s physical and mental self to in be in a state of flux.[7] Overall, the studies found, “the normal attributes of the teen brain add up to ‘a prescription for bad choices,’ generally reflective more of normative developmental process than of bad character.”

[1]  Terry A. Maroney, The False Promise of Adolescent Brain Science in Juvenile Justice, 85 Notre Dame L. Rev. 89, 98 (2009).
[2]  Adolescence, Brain Development and Legal Culpability, (Am. Bar Ass’n Juvenile Justice Ctr.), Jan. 2004, at 2, available at
[3]  Maroney, supra note 4, at 110.
[4]  Adolescence, supra note 4, at 2.
[5]  Maroney, supra note 4, at 110.
[6]  Id.
[7]  Sandra J. Ackerman, The Adolescent Brain—The Dana Guide, The Dana Foundation, (Nov. 2007), available at

The author concludes:

Through science, we have discovered juveniles’ predispositions and the reason behind their innate immaturity and behavior. With these discoveries, the courts now have scientific, objective insight to better determine whether juvenile life without parole comports with the Eighth Amendment. The science is well-established and the legal implications are obvious.


Eleven minute heartbreaker, mind-opener, and medication for barbarism:
A Path For Hope: Ending Juvenile Life Without Parole


NOTE: The following is a 25-minute video program — and worth watching every second, especially for anyone not already well-versed in juvenile detention issues.

Video Published on Nov 26, 2012 on InsideOut Ptv
Their intro to the video:

The Supreme Court ruled earlier this year [2012] that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders, ages 17 and under, are unconstitutional, however the ruling does not automatically free any of the over 2200 [Drinan said it is now 2500] prisoners serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles nor does it forbid such life terms for youths convicted of homicide. Rather, sentencing judges must first take into account the offender’s age, the nature of the crime and other mitigating factors.

On this edition of Inside Out we ask: What goes into deciding a youth deserves a life sentence? What programs are available to youth behind bars? And what are the alternatives to lock up?


Below: Fair Sentencing Infographic from (same as the one above, “Kids Locked Up for Life”) tells the U.S. horror story on youth life sentence imprisonment.  After it opens, click it again to enlarge.
Kids Locked Up for Life without Parole - A U.S. MonopolyFurther reading:

Get it where it’s hot right now, in Pennsylvania: Teen lifers: New state law bans mandatory life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder; Courts and legislature have given no guidance to trial judges handling appeals in older cases.  By Rick Lee, York Daily Record/Sunday News.  February 10, 2013.  Excerpt: “Juvenile murderers still can be sentenced to life without parole in Pennsylvania for first-degree murder. But the penalty, as it remains here for adults 18 and older, cannot be mandatory. … The [Pennsylvania] amended juvenile sentencing guidelines for first-degree murder now carry a maximum sentence of life without parole and a minimum of 35 years to life if the juvenile was 15 or older at the time of the crime. If younger than 15, a juvenile could be sentenced to life without parole or a minimum of 25 years to life.  If convicted of second-degree murder, the sentencing guidelines are 30 years to life for minors 15 or older and 20 years to life for minors under 15.”  Clear?TakePart-Infographic-4

Here are two pieces in the Juvenile Justice Blog of Tamar Rebecca Birckhead, an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she teaches the Juvenile Justice Clinic, the Criminal Lawyering Process, and Juvenile Courts and Delinquency.  Her research interests focus on issues related to juvenile justice policy and reform, criminal law and procedure, indigent criminal defense, and the criminalization of poverty.

  1. When Reform Fails on the State Level, Turn to Local Advocates, April 3, 2014.  “North Carolina is the only state in the U.S. that treats all 16 and 17-year-olds as adults when they are charged with criminal offenses and then denies them the ability to appeal for return to the juvenile system. … Although this particular policy is specific to my state, nearly every state can transfer minors to adult court for relatively minor offenses … When it comes to the impact of the criminal justice system on our young people, whether in the Tar Heel State or beyond, we have nowhere to go but up.”
  2. From Professor Birckhead’s piece for the Huffington Post, also posted in her blog on October 20, 2012: Reconsidering Life Sentences for Juveniles who Kill: “… 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.”

More to explore, if you really want to get your teeth into this beef:

  • Member of triple murder victim family supports court decision to allow juvenile life resentencing.  Illinois Supreme Court Gets it Right on Juvenile Life Sentences: Now, the Legislature Ought to Act (Posted on March 20, 2014 in Stunning Guidance blog):  “The Illinois Supreme Court got it right today when it ruled that all the inmates currently serving a mandatory sentence of life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles are eligible for new sentences, including sentences of less than natural life. That decision is good for the juveniles, good for society and, ultimately, good for families of victims of the crimes which led to those sentences (I am a member of one of those families: A juvenile murdered three of my family members in Winnetka in 1990, and is doing life without parole in Pontiac prison).”
  • Boston Bar Association supports Juvenile Justice Through The Possibility of Parole (Posted January 9, 2014 in Issue Spot)  “Following the BBA Council’s unanimous approval of a set of juvenile justice principles supporting the elimination of juvenile life without parole sentences, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) ruled in the case of Diatchenko vs. District Attorney for the District & Others that these sentences are indeed unconstitutional. … The BBA has long supported bills abolishing the juvenile life without parole sentences in prior legislative sessions.”
  • On the bent side of the coin, there are those who say that the Massachusetts State court makes wrong call on juvenile murderers.  They offer the empty argument that the court decision is a “severe injustice to the families of victims of juvenile murderers.”  That is, constitutionality is a matter of emotion, not justice, and not accountable to scientific reasoning on the matter.  They also cite the “it’s an adult crime because it’s so bad” argument offered by Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, who reportedly said, “There are some crimes that are so abhorrent and so heinous a juvenile should be sentenced to life without parole.  We don’t charge first-degree murder unless the facts are so heinous and horrible that it warrants a first-degree charge.”  They don’t mention where Blodgett got his medical degree, but they don’t give them out in law school.  His point just clings irrationally to the blinded notion that because the crime is “heinous and horrible,” it must therefore necessarily be an act only within the capacity of an adult.  Ergo: the child is so bad that he or she is the equivalent of an adult for criminal justice purposes.  That’s insane.  They should lock him up; in a hospital, not a penitentiary.  (Note: I did not limit my selection of articles here to only one that opposes my conclusions.  In fact, by citing just this one, I’ve given the opposition far more air time than it deserves, relative to the tiny percentage it represents among professional opinions.  That is, in the course of reviewing dozens of reports and articles coming from unbiased search terms, I found only this one to offer in the interest of “equal time.”  I’ve given the puny opposition more time than the general media have given it, percentage-wise.)
  • Evan Miller and More Juveniles Sentenced to Life in Prison Without Parole (PHOTOS)  Posted December 16, 2013 in the Children In Prison blog.  Contains photos and life story information about four juvenile offenders on life without parole sentences, and links to many related articles that I did not review.  I found this piece interesting for its info on the kids’ backgrounds.
  • TED Talk Blog article: Supreme Court rules mandatory life sentences for children are unconstitutional.  Posted by: Ben Lillie on June 26, 2012.  This TED blog article begins by saying:
    • At TED2012, lawyer Bryan Stevenson made an impassioned case [see, read or download Stevenson's TED Talk] for confronting racial and economic injustice in the American justice system. And, he argued, confronting that means changing the way the system approaches child offenders. In his talk he says: “I represent children. A lot of my clients are very young. The United States is the only country in the world where we sentence 13-year-old children to die in prison. We have life imprisonment without parole for kids in this country … the only country in the world.”

    The article includes discussion of the complexity of applications of the brain science involved.

    • TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (18 minutes or less). TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages. Meanwhile, independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.
  • The whole world says it’s a VIOLATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS.  See:  U.N. Criticizes U.S. for Incarcerating Youth in Adult Jails and Prisons, March 27 2014, by Deborah LaBelle and Cindy Soohoo, City University of NY School of Law.  Posted in the CURE-NY blog (NY chapter of CURE National, Citizens United for Rehabilitiation of Errants)
    • Today, the U.N. Human Rights Committee criticized a broad range of U.S. laws and policies that treat youth under 18 as adults in the criminal justice system. “The Human Rights Committee’s statements reflect international consensus and a common sense understanding that youth are different than adults and that subjecting them to adult criminal punishments is a human rights violation,” says Cindy Soohoo, director of the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic (IWHR) at the City University of New York School of Law.


Why are New York children being locked up like hardened criminals?

*****  WARNING: Some images may be disturbing.  *****

About Center for Community Alternatives (Innovative Solutions for Justice) - from their website:  CCA provides early interventions for young people involved in the juvenile justice system. New York State is one of only two states in which the age of criminal majority is 16.  CCA’s recommendations (PDF).  The short video above by Brave New Foundation describes the ramifications of this important issue and features CCA’s work.


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9 thoughts on “The Beef: Juvenile Life Sentence Without Parole is Insane


    • curi56,
      If your two latest posts were supposed to have links in them, they didn’t show up. Just copy and past the web address (URL) in plain text in a comment here and it will automatically become a link when published.

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