Violent juveniles serving life without parole: When victims of crime disagree
Aug 07, 2009
By Lisa Rea
I would like to draw your attention to a very controversial piece of US federal legislation, HR 2289, which seeks to address the problem of juvenile lifers who are serving life sentences.
The expressed purpose of the bill is to "establish a meaningful opportunity for parole or similar release of juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison."
Two victims of crime who have been active on many issues related to criminal justice reform testified at this hearing in June before the Senate Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security in Washington, D.C. The witnesses included Linda White, member of Murder Victims for Reconciliation, from Texas and Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, co-founder of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, from Illinois. Both victims were at one time working with my organization, The Justice and Reconciliation Project, a national nonprofit that organized and educated victims of crime about restorative justice. Until the closing of the JRP this year, Ms. Jenkins served on the board of directors of JRP. Both victims support restorative justice. Yet, on this subject they do not see eye to eye.
As you listen to the hearing, or read the testimony, you will hear restorative justice mentioned. The issue of how to treat juveniles offenders who have received life sentences without the possibility of parole is a very tough issue. This bill, HR 2289, called the Juvenile Justice Accountability and Improvement Act of 2009, is looking at how we sentence violent juveniles to life in prison and opening the debate about future treatment and sentencing of such violent juveniles. My hope is to stimulate discussion on this subject especially in the light of restorative justice. I hope that with this national discussion it might be possible to come to a place of common ground especially among the crime victims' community.
I am aware that Ms. Jenkins' concerns include the issue of retroactivity, that is how to apply this type of legislation to cases where such juveniles have already received a life without parole sentence. This legislation as it is now written would re-open cases like Jennifer's. Jennifer's sister, Nancy Bishop Langert, her husband, Richard, and their un-born child were victims of a vicious murder in 1990. The life sentence that applies to the offender in her family's case would be in question. While the offender received a life without parole sentence the chance of the offender getting out of prison some day has victims like Jennifer reeling. Part of Jennifer's argument is that bringing family members before a parole board every 2-3 years for the rest of their lives, given that family members often do oppose release of violent offenders after the murder of a loved one, has a devastating effect on the victim's family for life.
Linda White, also a victim of violent crime whose daughter Cathy was brutally murdered in 1986, sees it differently. Ms. White believes we should treat juvenile offenders differently, especially since the acts of violence committed by these juveniles were committed often at an early age. White also argues that through rehabilitation type programs change in an offender is possible. She believes that at the very least these juvenile offenders should have the chance for parole. White met the man who killed her daughter in a mediated dialogue set up through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and its Victim's Services Division. This dialogue had a deep effect on Ms. White and her view of this offender.
I will not go into every argument posed by each victim as they testified. You can view that for yourself. But it is clear to me that victims should always have the right to be at the table when laws are made that will affect them. In a system based on restorative justice that would be the ideal. That after all is what restorative justice is all about. I call it victims-driven restorative justice for without the victim in the center all good reforms of the criminal justice are not restorative justice. Should the views of victims have more weight than others ? I think the views of victims should carry weight, yes. How much weight they should wield is the question. Increasingly, though, crime victims are disagreeing publicly on many issues. Some of those issues include the death penalty, and whether it should be abolished, or whether we need additional laws that require offenders serve more and more prison time (or even be eligible for the death penalty), or this issue considering whether juveniles should be given life without parole sentences.
Brokering a position on legislation, no matter how complicated, is something that happens all the time. I know because I've written legislation and have lobbied for and against legislation related to many subjects including issues related to criminal justice. This is not new. Can common ground be built? I think it can even on this highly explosive subject. But it will take some kind of give and take on both sides. One thing is essential, however. There must be mutual respect between the two (or more) sides as the negotiations on the legislation takes place. Certainly this legislation will not stand or fall because of the views of crime victims; however, saying that it is also my experience that their views do matter and lawmakers do listen. Public opinion is also affected by the stories they hear from crime victims.
Isn't that what restorative justice is all about? A dialogue must begin. What are we trying to fix here? I would say we are trying to fix a terribly broken criminal justice system that does not work for the victim (or their families), the offender (and yes, their families) and the communities torn by crime. How do we move past this to a place of safer communities that begin to restore or heal victims as much as possible as well as the communities also in need of restoration? We sit down and have that dialogue.