Children Sentenced to Life Without Parole
In the late 1800s a special juvenile court was created with the goal of altering the trajectories of troubled lives. But a wave of "tough on crime" legislation has put thousands of child offenders in prison for life, with no hope of freedom.
By John Hubner
At age eight, Dietrick Mitchell was sweet-natured and eager to go to school. By 16, he was "a mess, without discipline," says his aunt, Linda Mitchell, who raised the boy in Aurora, Colo., west of Denver. Dietrick did not know his father; his mother was "into drugs, she was cracked-out. She kept Dietrick because she wanted the social welfare."
On a fateful day in August 1991, a friend gave Dietrick the keys to a Toyota. Dietrick did not have a license, but he spent the day drinking and driving around Denver with his 18- year-old girlfriend in the front seat and a 14-year-old boy in back. When a police officer spotted the car and turned to follow it, Dietrick took off. He rounded a corner and looked back to see if the officer was behind him.
Danny Goetsch, 16, and two friends were walking three abreast. Danny was in the street near the curb; the Toyota hit Danny, sending him airborne. His head came down on the curb. Dietrick and his friends fled. Danny died the next day. When Dietrick saw the story on television, his aunt says, he "went into a state of shock." After he told her what had happened, she told Dietrick he had to face the consequences and took him to a police station. She did not hire an attorney.
Prosecutors charged Dietrick with first-degree murder with "extreme indifference." Although experts testified that the accident was not likely gang-related, the 14-year-old passenger told the court Dietrick had shouted, "That's three points!" after hitting the victim, as if he would be rewarded by a gang. The jury convicted Dietrick, and in 1992 he joined the swelling ranks of child offenders in the United States serving life without parole. He turned 30 in prison last year.
A new report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that at least 2,225 prisoners in the United States are serving life without parole for crimes they committed as minors. The sentence is rare elsewhere in the world — a total of 12 child offenders are serving life terms in Israel, South Africa and Tanzania. But in the United States, two decades of mandatory sentencing laws and increasing prosecutorial discretion to try children as adults have created an entire population of young prisoners who will live the rest of their days behind bars.
Linda Mitchell was devastated. "A boy was dead who should be alive, but I saw it as an accident," she says. "Dietrick wasn't trying to kill Danny.
"Dietrick did a terrible, stupid thing. But should he pay for that terrible stupid thing by being locked up for the whole of his natural life? Giving him life without parole didn't stop hit and runs; they happen all the time."
Dietrick's dead-end sentence did, however, conform to the extreme racial disparity in child life without parole sentencing. The AI-HRW report found that black youth are serving life without parole sentences at a rate that is 10 times higher than white youth. This is consistent with studies published by the Department of Justice's juvenile division, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which have shown there is an over-representation of minorities at all levels of the juvenile justice system.
There are varying opinions on why minority youth are incarcerated at higher rates than white youth. In the first, racial bias plays no role. Proponents of this theory argue the higher rates are the inevitable result of minority youth committing more crimes and more serious crimes than white youth. Another theory is that racism and poverty play their part in a complex social equation. "There is discrimination in the recurring circumstances, in the hard but true fact that if you are poor and a minority, your opportunities for rehabilitation are diminished," says Dr. Leonard E. Lawrence, former chair of the Texas Youth Commission Board of Directors and a professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. "We have to take those conditions into consideration, but we cannot use them to excuse criminal behavior."
But researchers who study the effects of race in the juvenile justice system believe that, under the third scenario, skin color all too often is the determining factor in sentencing, particularly when it comes to making the fateful determination of whether a case is heard in juvenile or criminal court. Daniel Macallair, co-founder and executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, co-authored a 2000-2001 study of 18 courts across the country that found that of cases involving youth filed in adult courts, 43 percent of African American youth and 37 percent of Latino youth received a sentence of incarceration as compared with 26 percent of white youth. "Discrimination against kids of color skyrockets when juveniles are tried as adults," Macallair says. "There's a double standard: Throw kids of color behind bars, but rehabilitate white kids who commit comparable crimes."
That the United States, almost alone in the world, should be trying so many teenagers as adults is one of the great changes — and ironies — in world jurisprudence. The world's first juvenile court was established in Chicago in 1899, a landmark event for the United States as well as the world. The court was designed to do more than settle disputes and determine sentences. Its aim was to alter the trajectories of troubled young lives. The court hired probation officers to interview parents and teachers and write reports that revealed the social causes of crime. It established a clinical division where psychologists probed a delinquent's inner world.
But the purest expression of the new juvenile court was found in Denver, where, in 1903, Judge Benjamin Lindsey established a juvenile court that was completely independent of the criminal court, which he called "a medieval torture chamber."
In Lindsey's court the judge was parens patriae, the caring father that most young offenders who appeared before him did not have. The judge had the power to hold accountable young offenders as well as adults who had contributed to their delinquency, and he did. But Lindsey saw his primary role as developing and implementing plans designed to turn young offenders into young citizens. From 1903 to 1927, Lindsey presided over a court that legal historians have called "a vigorous machine for social engineering."
Sixty-five years after Lindsey left the bench, Dietrick Mitchell went to trial. By then, criminologists and legislators in states around the country considered the juvenile court as archaic as the stiff Victorian suits Lindsey once wore. They believed Lindsey's ideas were perhaps fine for his day, when kids were pickpockets and truants, but experts warned they could not be applied to the young thugs who began to appear in the 1980s. As the crack cocaine epidemic infested cities, a surge in violent teenage crime occurred — largely the result of street gangs fighting to control its distribution. OJJDP studies show that between 1983 and 1994, arrest rates for juveniles charged with violent offenses jumped 78 percent. The juvenile homicide rate in America reached an all-time high in 1994, with more than 2,300 victims killed that year.
Fear was rampant as television beamed images of young homicidal killers as lethal as the semi-automatic weapons they carried. Network news inundated homes across the United States with images of defiant teenage murderers, sometimes flashing gang signs.
"America is now home to thickening ranks of juvenile 'Super Predators,' radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters," Princeton professor John J. DiIulio wrote in the 1996 book Body Count, co-authored with John P. Walters and William J. Bennett.
The juvenile court and the inherent idea that children are excellent candidates for redemption were swept away by fear of "Super Predators" and by politicians out to prove they were tougher on crime than their opponents. In some states, childhood was "defined down" so that youth ages 16 and 17 who committed certain crimes were automatically transferred to adult criminal courts. In other states, youth who committed certain crimes were automatically transferred to criminal courts, no matter what their ages. Prosecutors, not judges, decided whether a case would be heard in juvenile court or transferred to adult criminal court.
Yet the idea that youth had suddenly evolved into the human form of the robot in The Terminator was at odds with the latest scientific research. Brain researchers using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) had established a biological basis for the premise on which the juvenile court was founded and for what parents already knew: teenagers really are immature. MRIs show that the frontal lobes, specifically the prefrontal cortex, do not develop fully until the early 20s. This is the part of the brain responsible for the cognitive control of behavior, for impulse inhibition. The prefrontal cortex regulates aggression, weighs cause and effect and considers longterm consequences.
"Children are uniquely suited for change," says David Berger, an attorney for O'Melveny and Myers LLP who conducted research on the AI-HRW report in his capacity as pro bono counsel to Amnesty International USA. "They grow up and mature, often becoming unrecognizable to those who knew them in childhood."
After 1993 the murder rate among juveniles dropped 68 percent, and the menace of the alleged "Super Predator" plague had faded. OJJDP reports show that between 1993 and 2000, juveniles arrested for murder dropped 74 percent. By 2000, murders committed by juvenile offenders were at their lowest levels in 20 years. The number of juvenile homicides plummeted to around 1,200. Experts cite a strong economy combined with a declining market for crack, plus community policing and efforts to keep weapons out of the hands of juveniles, as reasons for the decline.
DiIulio ended up wishing he had never coined the term "Super Predator." In 2001, he told the New York Times, "If I knew then what I know now, I would have shouted for prevention of crimes." But news of the falling juvenile crime rate did not register with the public, who remained fearful, or with their elected officials. Even today, the cry "adult time for adult crime" continues to echo in state capitols across America and supports the practice of sentencing child offenders to life without parole.
Rep. Ray Rose, a Colorado state representative, has been a consistent supporter of child life without parole laws. "Public safety has to come first," Rose says. "Even if only 10 percent re-offend, what do you say to the families they hurt? What do you say when they ask, 'He was locked up in prison. Why was he ever released?'"
Youth must be 18 to vote, 16 to drive and 18 or 21 to purchase alcohol and tobacco. But the justice system has blurred the distinction between child and adult. At least 28 states limit or completely eliminate juvenile court hearings for youth charged with certain crimes (ranging from violent assaults to less serious drug offenses). At least 14 states and the District of Columbia have given prosecutors the discretion to bypass the judge and move juvenile cases directly into adult court for particular crimes.
And in 42 states, teenagers can be sentenced to life without parole.
Ninety-three percent of youths serving life without parole in the United States have been sentenced for murder. The AI-HRW report found that in four of the years studied between 1985 and 2001, teenagers convicted of murder were in fact more likely to get a life without parole or death sentence than adult murderers. Largely because of mandatory sentencing laws, the percentage of teenage murderers given life without parole in 2000 was three times higher than it was in 1990.
Yet murder can be an elastic term, as is shown by the case of Erik Jensen, a young man serving life without parole in Colorado for felony murder, the crime of being present when someone else kills during the commission of a crime. The classic example is the driver of a getaway car charged with felony murder because one of his accomplices killed a guard during a robbery.
Erik Jensen was 17, and his friend Nathan Ybanez was 16, in 1998 when they were in a rock band prophetically named "Trouble Bound." Nathan had a difficult home life. His parents forced him to leave the band, then changed their minds; they enrolled him in military school, then changed their minds. Nathan ran away frequently. His parents were separated and Nathan had moved into an apartment with his mother Julie.
Erik and Nathan had plans one day in 1998, but when Erik arrived to pick Nathan up, Julie answered the door and said Nathan had to stay home. Nathan came up from behind and hit his mother over the head with a fireplace iron, then used it to strangle her. Erik thought about running and notifying authorities but instead stayed and helped clean up the blood and wrap the body in a rug. Nathan testified that Erik took no part in the killing, but prosecutors charged Erik with felony murder. Erik and Nathan were both sentenced to life without parole.
If Dietrick Mitchell, Nathan Ybanez and Erik Jensen live to age 70 and die behind bars, Colorado taxpayers will pay more than $6 million to keep them locked away, according to an estimate by the Rocky Mountain News. "Life without parole negates what most people believe about childhood, that a person is growing and can change and needs support to make those changes," says Alison Parker, the senior researcher for Human Rights Watch who authored the report. "We're not saying open the prison doors. We're saying, 'Why not take a second look?' We have procedures in place that show whom should be given a second chance." Youth who had been given the death penalty were given a second chance of sorts late last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty for juveniles unconstitutional in Roper v. Simmons. MRI brain research and the basic fact that adolescents are inherently different from adults played a part in the decision. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy noted that immaturity, by definition, can mean acting irresponsibly and being highly susceptible to negative peer pressure. Justice Kennedy concluded, "Even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile" is not "evidence of irretrievably depraved character."
Pat Jensen, Erik's mother, wants the courts to apply those insights into adolescent behavior to youth serving life without parole.
"Erik had no priors, he'd never hurt anyone," she says. "I absolutely say Erik should have been charged and convicted for what he did, but he absolutely shouldn't be serving life without parole. He was a stupid kid who made a stupid mistake. You hope a kid can pay for it and move on and be a better person. But not these days, not with these sentencing laws."