Archive for Sunday, December 9, 2007

For adult crimes, juveniles receive life without parole

Critics question system that leaves no middle ground

December 9, 2007


— It began as a feud only a child could invent - teenage chest-thumping over sneaking across the golf course at Germania Town & Country Club after dark and scoop lost balls out of a pond.

But by that morning, three children - Isaac Rollie, 7, and his 9- and 11-year-old sisters - lay dead inside their charred Saginaw home. They perished at the hands of two local teens, who hurled pop-bottle firebombs through the windows so one could settle a petty score.

Michael Lee Perry was 16 at the time, but he'd have to do adult time - the rest of his life in prison, without any chance for parole.

That was 17 years ago. Today, Perry is serving time at Detroit's Mound Correctional Facility and stands 6-foot-2, graying at the temples, his hairline receding. He appeals, though, for the understanding he says the boy he once was still deserves.

"I took people's lives who didn't even have a chance to grow up and experience life. But, I mean, I didn't even experience life myself," says Perry, now 34. "I'm not saying a child should go unpunished. : (But) it's like I'm just abandoned."

At least 2,381 people are serving life without parole in U.S. prisons for crimes when they were 17 or younger. The vast majority are locked up because they took another life.

Call for re-evaluation

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that sentencing juveniles to death is unconstitutional, advocates have been nudging lawmakers, courts and the public to go one step further and re-examine the life sentences meted out to young people convicted of the most serious crimes.

If we believe that juveniles are intrinsically different from adults - that their judgment is lacking, that they are capable of learning from mistakes - how can we justify locking them away forever?

Laws stringently tightened in recent years often give judges and juries little or no choice in weighing punishment.

In many states, the severity of the crime, not the age of the accused, mandates trial and punishment as an adult. Even when some measure of discretion is allowed, it can distort the choices.

When the time came to sentence Michael Perry, state law forced a judge to decide between widely disparate options. He could treat Perry as a juvenile, despite the seriousness of the crime, and see him released by 21. Or he could send him away forever.

"The only conclusion that I can reach," Judge Leopold Borrello told two grieving families gathered in the courtroom that day, "is that the law deprives me of doing justice."

History of juvenile crime

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, alarm over violent youth crime set off widespread fears. Tales of brutal carjackings and brazen gang warfare filled headlines.

Soon, experts warned, we would be at the mercy of legions of juvenile "superpredators."

Many states began requiring that juveniles accused of first-degree murder be tried as adults.

The new mind-set resulted in swift change. In 1980, just two juveniles were sentenced to life without parole, the harshest punishment possible short of the death penalty. By 1996, 152 youth offenders were sent to prison for life, according to figures compiled by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

'Face the punishment'

Today, inmates in 39 states and the federal prisons are serving life without parole for crimes they committed as youngsters. Five states - Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Michigan, Florida and California - account for two-thirds of the cases documented by the two human rights groups, which are pushing for reform.

The tougher laws were applauded by prosecutors and victims' advocates as necessary tools to fight crime and protect the public.

"If they can do these kinds of crimes, then they've got to face the punishment," says Maggie Elvey, a California activist whose husband, Ross, was beaten to death in 1993 by two boys, ages 15 and 16.

But the sharp increase in juvenile violence that the new laws were meant to fight never came. Gradually, that has led some to question whether the tougher approach went too far.

"There were all kinds of predictions (of a sharp rise in juvenile violence). I think I even made a few. But that hasn't panned out," says Linda J. Collier, a dean at Delaware County Community College in Media, Pa., among those who called for stiffer juvenile sentences.

Calls for change

Sending juveniles to prison for life raises a host of tough questions. Colorado tangled with them last year when lawmakers made juvenile lifers eligible for parole after 40 years and the governor established a special clemency board to look at those already in prison.

Legislators in Illinois and California have introduced bills calling for change.

Now, Michigan - where 306 inmates are serving life for crimes they committed when they were 17 or younger - could be the next to face those questions.

At least that is the hope of Deborah LaBelle, an Ann Arbor attorney pushing for reform. She lambastes the inconsistencies of a legal system that deems people too immature to vote or drink alcohol or serve on juries, but says they are old enough to be held accountable as adults for their crimes.

"Aren't there kids who have done horrible things? Yes. But then you have to grant that aren't there kids who didn't, who just made a horrible decision," she says. "Shouldn't we individualize them? Aren't they at least entitled to that?"

But backers of life without parole disagree.

They're people like Michael Thomas, the prosecutor in Saginaw, whose strong support for juvenile life sentences is based on personal experience. Years of violent juvenile crime have defiled his hometown, making clear the need to protect the public and see that justice is done, he says.

"I think most people sitting on a jury, most people with houses in your neighborhood, pretty much understand that they (juveniles accused of heinous crimes) are the worst of the worst and that the penalty does fit the crime," he says.

Final sentence?

On the day Michael Lee Perry was sentenced for the Saginaw firebombing, the judge sought a middle ground that did not exist.

Instead, he sentenced Perry to life, while recommending that after 20 years a Michigan governor consider him for a reprieve, commutation or pardon.

Perry is already preparing his petition for freedom. But Perry recognizes that political calculus makes exoneration rare.

"If I do (spend) my life within these walls and fences, I'll accept my punishment," he wrote the judge two years ago, in a letter intended for the family of his victims, "and do it in the memory of the pain, suffering, heartaches and deaths I helped cause.

"I will never forget."


izzybear 10 years, 3 months ago

A child knows right from wrong by the age of 7 or at the most 10. If a 15,16,17year old kills they need to be locked up for life if they are going to kill at that young age they will never stop. Most serial Killers experence their first kill between ages 15 and 21. I believe that the only reason we have not had the uprising of kids killing is they don't want to be locked up for ever. I hope the laws DO NOT CHANGE!!!!

50YearResident 10 years, 3 months ago

No free pass for teenagers! The old laws are the reason young people have no respect for the law and we get all the teen criminals. Charge all teens as Adults and the crime rate will take a sudden decline............

Commenting has been disabled for this item.