This week, my colleagues Cully Stimson and Andrew Grossman released a landmark study entitled “Adult Time for Adult Crime: Life Without Parole for Juvenile Killers and Violent Teens.”
This report highlights the small but well-funded group of anti-incarceration activists who are making a constitutional end run around 43 states, the federal government, and the District of Columbia — each of which has authorized life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences for the worst juvenile killers and violent teens. Since these fringe activists have failed to convince most state legislatures to abolish LWOP, and failed to convince any state supreme court or federal appellate court that the sentence is unconstitutional, they have nowhere to go but the U.S. Supreme Court. They want the court-of-last-resort to find LWOP sentences for juvenile killers and violent teens unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment in two cases out of Florida. The Court has agreed to hear the cases.
As Stimson and Grossman detail, the backbone of these activists’ effort is numerous self-published studies — which employ manufactured statistics regarding the actual number of juveniles serving the sentence, a false reading of a 2005 Supreme Court case, and the erroneous assertion that the United States is in violation of international law by allowing these commonsense sentences. These “studies” are better characterized as slick lobbying brochures.
The intentional duplicitiousness of this fringe movement, especially since it deals with public safety, is really astonishing. Organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch don’t think twice about making up statistics or flat out lying about the facts of individual cases to persuade state legislators (and now the Supreme Court) to eliminate LWOP. They claim that the 2005 Supreme Court case of Roper v. Simmons, which held the death penalty for juveniles unconstitutional, compels the same result in the non–death penalty area, when in fact the Roper decision relied on the availability of LWOP as an alternative to the death penalty for its holding.
Stimson and Grossman note how activists use pictures of young children pretending to be teens serving LWOP — instead of the actual juvenile criminals. Activists all use the term“child” in their reports, even though only juveniles (i.e., teenagers) and not children are subject to this punishment.
To set the record straight for legislators, judges, and the public, Stimson and Grossman provide a detailed analysis of the 8th Amendment and the Roper decision. They provide an irrefutable analysis of how we are in compliance with international law and our treaty obligations. And to show the types of crimes these convicted juveniles actually commit, they provide the actual facts of 16 typical cases, as found by courts of law, from around the country, and demonstrate how the other side has presented skewed — almost laughable — depictions of the crimes in question. It is hard to read in places because of the excruciatingly painful details of what really happened. But the other side does not ever discuss what the juveniles did, and in fact, is willing to whitewash the actual facts to make their clients look like victims. Thus, the ugly real facts are exactly what the public needs to know.
Here is just one example from the report that vividly illustrates how deceptive the opponents of LWOP are. The Equal Justice Initiative described one juvenile murderer, Ashley Jones, as a 14-year-old who “tried to escape the violence and abuse by running away with an older boyfriend who shot and killed her grandfather and aunt. Her grandmother and sister, who were injured during the offense, want Ashley to come home.”
What actually happened, according to the judge’s findings, is much different. Jones and her boyfriend planned to murder her family, including her grandparents, because they disapproved of her relationship with the boyfriend. She was living with the grandparents because she had previously stabbed her parents. Jones got the gun for the boyfriend and let him into the house, whereupon he shot the grandfather and an aunt. When Jones realized the aunt was not dead, she hit the aunt in the head with a heater and stabbed her in the chest. They then shot the grandmother, but ran out of bullets. When they discovered that the grandfather was still alive, they stabbed him repeatedly, and Jones poured lighter fluid on him and set him on fire. Jones then set her grandmother on fire and stabbed her ten-year-old sister 14 times. They left after setting the house on fire.
Miraculously, the grandmother and sister survived, although they were seriously injured and had to undergo extensive medical treatment. When Jones found out the next day from news reports that her sister had survived, she said, “I thought I killed that b****.” At the sentencing hearing, the judge noted the defendant’s lack of remorse, and that Jones had threatened other female inmates in jail while awaiting sentencing, telling them she would do the same thing to them that she had done to her family. Apparently, the only “violence and abuse” Jones was trying to escape was the violence and abuse she inflicted on her own family.
But you would never know that from the activists’ portrayal of her case — and they want to help sociopaths like Jones come back out into the world, where they can hurt even more families.
— Hans A. von Spakovsky is a visiting legal scholar at the Heritage Foundation. He is also a former member of the Federal Election Commission and a former Justice Department official.