Religion and Ethics Weekly: Juvenile Life Without Parole

Posted by Kendall Harmon

[TIM] O’BRIEN: Young is being held at a maximum security prison in central Florida. Under Florida law, juveniles charged with serious crimes are tried as adults, and serious crimes — like armed robbery — can bring life in prison. And in the courtroom of Judge J. Rogers Padgett, being a child didn’t seem to help. It can even hurt the child who behaves like one, as Kenneth Young did.

Judge J. ROGERS PADGETT (Hillsborough County, Florida Circuit Court): So what we see is what we get in the way of a defendant. We get a person who shows no remorse. We get a person who is smiling in court, thinks it’s funny. We have a person who, while he is under consideration for a life sentence, is flipping signals to people in the gallery.

O’BRIEN: He’s only 15, barely.

Judge PADGETT: We have a person who gives no appearance of deserving any slack whatsoever and sentence him. So we give him a life sentence.

O’BRIEN: Enter law professor Paolo Annino, who runs the Children in Prison Project at Florida State University. Annino has been trying for years to get the Florida legislature to allow parole consideration for all juvenile offenders in the state to give them a second chance, his arguments as much moral as they are legal.

(to Prof. Paolo Annino): Is it your position that no juvenile should be sentenced to life without parole?

Professor PAOLO ANNINO (Florida State University): Oh, absolutely, and I think we’re immoral, ultimately, as a nation. This is no different from slavery or other major moral issues. Placing children in adult prisons for life is a death sentence for children....

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchLaw & Legal IssuesPrison/Prison MinistryTeens / Youth* TheologyEthics / Moral Theology

13 Comments
Posted January 31, 2009 at 5:00 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Sick & Tired of Nuance wrote:

This kid was 15.

I have several generations of ancestors that were in the militia at age 16.  One of them saw his first battle at age 16, during the American Revolution.  There are numerous documented cases of 16 year olds fighting in WW II. 

He did an adult crime, showed no remorse, and looked on the proceedings with contempt. (Perhaps others more qualified could offer an opinion as to whether that sort of behavior is sociopathic.)

Armed robbery is a demonstration of intent to do bodily harm or murder to gain the object of the robbery.

Justice is being served.

What heartless cruelty to try to deny justice for the victims!

January 31, 8:43 pm | [comment link]
2. Terry Tee wrote:

Sick and tired of nuance:  you are well named.  Perhaps Christian concepts like forgiveness and compassion are too nuanced for you.

A pity that you do not engage with any of the evidence, such as the psychiatric evidence saying that brains are not really mature until the early 20s. 

I think, by the way, this predilection for jailing children is why the US does not sign the international declaration of the rights of the child.

February 1, 7:17 am | [comment link]
3. Connecticutian wrote:

In all sincerity I commend Sick & Tired’s lineage; it demonstrates the potential of young people who are blessed with a good upbringing.  They are certainly capable of more than we expect of them.  Still…

Terry is right about brain development (though perhaps not necessarily about the international declaration.)  And we live in a particularly depraved era in our national history.  Not every kid is raised with an understanding of right and wrong, or given the tools to navigate life with civility.  Sure, some of these criminals may simply be hardened punks; but some may be victims of their own families.  The sort of behavior that might be “sociopathic”, might just as easily indicate some brain immaturity or even a variety of mental illness, and it is not always easy to discern in a teenager.

It’s naive to think that inside every kids is an angel waiting to get out, and we should always give the benefit of the doubt; some are just dangerous.  But that doesn’t mean we should use the blunt instrument of criminal law punish kids who weren’t fully understanding of or able to control their judgment and impulses.  Especially on the personal whims of a judge who simply didn’t think a kid’s courtroom behavior was sufficiently pious (the stress alone of an impending life sentence can cause a teen brain to process anxiety in weird ways.)

Nor should we always confuse vengeance and retribution with justice.  This is a moral area where our faith has some direct application.

Unfortunately, I am in the position of getting familiar with a residential treatment facility for boys referred by the legal system; I am seeing that they can do a great job in turning a boy’s life around, giving him new skills and tools to cope with life, and having a second chance (when the legal system allows it.)

February 1, 8:43 am | [comment link]
4. Sick & Tired of Nuance wrote:

Hi Terry Tee,

Good use of ad hominem in your first sentence.  It is a pity that you do not engage with any actual evidence to refute my opinion.

Where in Scripture is there a distinction made by age for crimes and punishment?

I do not believe in forgiveness without repentance, absolution without personal confession, that no contrition or desire to be delivered from sin is required. In short, I do not believe in cheap grace. I also do not subscribe to Marcionite heresy.  Both the Old and New Testaments inform my faith and my opinion on crime and punishment.

You appeal to psychiatric evidence (yet actually offer none).  Would such evidence be on par with the Psychological Association’s endorsement of same-sex marriage and their calls for the complete acceptance of homosexual partnerships and homosexual adoption?

Regardless, if such “evidence” directly conflicts with Scripture (correctly interpreted and understood), I will side with what the Scriptures teach.

Finally, I do not see any evidence of compassion for the victims of violent crime in your remarks; only a desire to exculpate violent offenders.  Perhaps I am wrong in this impression and would be happy to be proven so, yet your remarks directed at me thus far offer no hope that such is the case.

Justice is a path for victims to be able to offer forgiveness.  Temporal justice is a path for offenders to find repentance. 

This is ordained by God.

1Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

2Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

3For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

4For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

5Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. - Romans 13:1-5

6For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.

7If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?

8But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. - Hebrews 12:6-8

February 1, 9:01 am | [comment link]
5. Sick & Tired of Nuance wrote:

Dear Connecticutian,

Thank you for your work in regard to a residential treatment facility for boys referred by the legal system.  I believe that folks helping in this way are providing enormous service to the community.

I think we are mostly in agreement, though I am not as eloquent in expressing my opinion.

Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t a “life sentence” actually only 20 years?  That would make Kenneth Young 35 upon release. That seems reasonable to me for the crime of armed robbery.  In contrast, Professor Paolo Annino offers nothing for those who suffered at the hands of the offenders!

Dr. Richard Ratner’s assertion that we do not have an adult brain until we are in our early 20s, if true, would dissolve our entire military.  I do not dispute that there may be cognitive developement that continues into our early 20s (actually, I am reasonably certain that that is the case).  Yet, that does not mean that those whose brains have not finished developing are without reason, moral capacity, or understanding of consequences.  What does it mean to have an “adult brain”.

Many states allow driving at age 16.  We allow military service at age 17.  We allow voting at 18.  We allow binding credit contracts at 18.  We allow marriage at 18.  Etc.  To deny justice to the victims and for the offenders on the basis that the brain has not completed development…well, I do not believe that is warranted by our societal norms nor is it supported in Scripture.

February 1, 9:27 am | [comment link]
6. CofS wrote:

Random thoughts:
If a life sentence is 20 years, I have never heard that.  However,
Young was given 4 consecutive life sentences which means if he lives until 95 he’ll get out.  It was armed robbery, but no one was hurt.  There is no victim crying for retribution.  Yes, an individual can come to repentance and find forgiveness in or out of prison.  I can quote scripture, too, realizing that all scripture can be used to promote one’s opinion:
“Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy willl be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.  Mercy triumphs over judgment.”  James 2:12, 13
If I’m going to err, even as loved one of a victim, I would rather err on the side of mercy.

February 1, 1:59 pm | [comment link]
7. Alli B wrote:

Terry Tee says:

Sick and tired of nuance:  you are well named.  Perhaps Christian concepts like forgiveness and compassion are too nuanced for you.

My rector once told me that forgiveness is overemphasized in the church and that exercising wisdom is equally important.  It seems to me that punishment in cases like this is secondary to protecting our citizens from further crime from these individuals.  Understanding your point concerning brain development, I still am under the impression that sociopaths are not able to change their behaviors.  If their behaviors are damaging to others, they must be kept away from society.

February 1, 2:50 pm | [comment link]
8. Ross wrote:

Setting aside the juvenile issue, life without parole strikes me as an unusually harsh sentence for armed robbery; even for a series of armed robberies, as in this case.  Murderers don’t typically get life without parole unless the crime was particularly heinous in some way; and the article didn’t suggest there was anything unusually aggravated about this kid’s crime.

February 1, 4:45 pm | [comment link]
9. pwhite wrote:

New research in brain science certainly suggests that children to not have fully developed brains until their early 20’s.  I attended a lecture on this recently and could not help imagining how the data presented would impact legal argument in future cases.  I think a rare case for life imprisonment can be made, based upon specific circumstances.  However, the numbers portrayed in this article seem to indicate that justice and mercy are not likely being served in some cases.

February 1, 5:21 pm | [comment link]
10. libraryjim wrote:

So, what DO we do with the little tykes who commit adult crimes, perhaps at the direction of a Fagan-like leader?

I mean, we had a report not too long ago of an 8 year old who calmly killed his father.  What’s going on in society that our kids think this is an acceptable course of action???

February 2, 11:31 am | [comment link]
11. Sick & Tired of Nuance wrote:

Hi libraryjim,

I think that the silence in response to your question speaks volumes.
Good question.

February 2, 1:38 pm | [comment link]
12. Connecticutian wrote:

I don’t think 2 hours of “silence” on a little-watched 2-day old thread speaks anything!  wink

Perhaps the “silence” says more about the complexity of a variety of answers to a terribly complex set of questions. 

Part of the answer may lie in asking the right questions.  Do “our kids” think murder is an acceptable action?  Or did one 8-year-old think so?  Why?  Should we make broad legislation based on a small number of abberrant cases?  Should we give less or more discretion to judges and juries so that they can better carry out justice in accord with the specific facts of each case?  Who is more or less likely to be rehabilitated, and how can we identify them for treatment? 

In CT (and many other states) a 14 year old can be tried as an adult and receive the full adult sentence for certain serious crimes.  Those certain serious offenses are often spelled out in response to public emotion about some previous, unrelated offense.  The intent may have been completely different (or even uninformed in a 14-y/o) and the actions may have been different, and the impact to the victim may have been completely different… but because they fall under the same statute, they’re lumped together and punished the same, often without any discretion given to judges.

February 2, 3:53 pm | [comment link]
13. Alli B wrote:

12, the things you say are true.  However, whether to try a child as an adult is subject to a hearing in and of itself.  Issues of mental competency are examined to decide the proper venue.  Some kids do indeed fall through the cracks and need to be given a second chance.  I do think though that those who have serious character/personality disorders are not able to be rehabilitated, and they need to be identified as such as soon as possible, and society must be protected from them if they are predisposed to violence.

February 2, 4:04 pm | [comment link]
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