Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=78191
Story Retrieval Date: 7/24/2014 9:41:08 AM CST

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Convicted adolescents beyond redemption?

by Ali Reed and Ashley Sears
Feb 13, 2008


Related Links

Link to the study

Five reasons why the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children says life-without-parole is wrong

-Children are different: Neuroscience research contradicts life-without-parole (LWOP) sentencing.

-LWOP disproportionately impacts minority youths.

-LWOP is a human rights violation.

-LWOP raises constitutional concerns.

-LWOP has become an increasingly used default sentencing provision.


 An Illinois youth justice advocacy group called for the abolition of life-without-parole sentencing for youths 17 and under on Wednesday.

The Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children interviewed 103 state prisoners who got that  maximum sentence even though they were  14 to 17-year-olds. 

The oldest prisoner who talked about his life-without-parole sentence as a youth, is now 47.  The study concluded that adolescents should have the chance to come before a parole board within the first 15 to 20 years of their life sentence.  

The group said it is inhumane to lock-up minors for life without the chance of parole.  They said adolescents are less culpable than adults and are capable of being rehabilitated. 

The coalition pointed out that the  U.S. Supreme Court 2005 recognized that children are “categorically less culpable” for their crimes because their brain development is still evolving.  Some psychiatrists said that young adults are not necessarily less culpable, but their developmental stage needs to be considered.

“The brains of children and adolescents are still developing and this affects how they make decisions and how they evaluate different situations,” said Dr. Susan Rosenthal,  director of the division of adolescent and behavioral health at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Two experts in the field contacted by the Medill News Service held different points of view.

Dr. Rosenthal said this is why it is important to consider a minor’s developmental stage when handing out sentences.  “You need to evaluate the situation in which the adolescent made that decision,” Dr. Rosenthal said.  “[He or she] may not continue to make that decision as an adult.  So you need to evaluate the situation from [his or her] developmental perspective.”

Rudolph Nimocks, the chief of the University of Chicago police department, disagrees.  He said most adolescents facing life without parole sentences commit serious and frequent heinous crimes.  And that often it is too late to be rehabilitated. 

“[The violence] is usually a multiple thing,” Nimocks said.  “It wasn’t done spontaneously.  It was cold-blooded and deliberate.  So it’s hard for them to be rehabilitated.  If they’re so far off the mark, they have deep psychological problems and would really need to be evaluated to see if they’d be able to safely re-enter society.”

Nimocks has been a police officer in Chicago for 53 years. He said he is discouraged by the increasing youth violence, but does not think a second chance can always be given to a violent offender. 

“It’s a tough problem,” Nimocks said.  “It’s a terrible thing if you let someone out and they turn around and do the same thing.  I don’t say [rehabilitation] is impossible, but it would require a lot of work.”

The Illinois coalition wants the study to create just this sort of dialogue with state policymakers.  The group said life without the possibility of parole  for teens violates human rights and should be abolished.   Dr. Rosenthal said the sentencing is unfair.

Illinois established  life-without-parole sentencing in 1978.  The United States is the only country to have this severe sentencing for minors, according to the coalition's report.