Maximum Punishment for Juvenile Crimes

A number of years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that life without the possibility of parole was too harsh a punishment to be imposed on a juvenile. About that time, the Washington Post published an op-ed by two congresscritters proposing a clear-line rule.

They said The maximum punishment for a juvenile crime should be the person’s age doubled. In this latest school shooting, the killer is reported to be fifteen years old. Therefore the most the state could do is lock him up for thirty years. In the same way, an eight-year-old could face a maximum of sixteen years in confinement…

Let us take the most extreme case, that of the murder of James Bulger, a two-year-old who was killed by two ten-year olds. Would you hold a twenty-year sentence to be appropriate, or would you think it too light?

I think, in an imperfect world, that it’s an imperfect rule. However, it’s probably on the better side. What I would want to alter is to make it a strong guideline, rather than an absolute.

Many minors and teens have a very poor understanding of life, death and consequences. Much of what an adult takes for granted is a mystery to them. Summer break is an impossibly long time, much less years. People die or get hurt all the time in TV and movies, but often seem to get better by the next episode.

It isn’t an excuse for the crimes, but it is an understanding that they, similar to a person with psychological or physiological issues, may have diminished capacity compared to the norm (whatever that means).

But, back to my earlier point, we do seem to have a number of individuals that very strongly feel that whatever horror they have done is right or justified, often along racial or religious lines. If there is zero effort to atone or acknowledge their wrongdoings, or if they seem after the default sentence is done, that they will commit similar crimes, they should have extended sentence.

I’d adopt something like the Norwegian system for all offenses: A max cap of something like 20 years, only extended by 5-year increments as deemed need by by an independent parole/release board. Since that rule is for adults, I’d shorten it by half for juveniles: A cap of 10 years as the max, but subject to extension by 2-year increments as deemed necessary by a board.

I think Velocity is in the right general neighborhood as far as length of sentence. I think in rare and extreme circumstances (mass shooters, serial child molesters), longer sentences may be justified. For your basic 17 year old gangster who kills someone, 10 years seems closer to right than 34, which the OP’s proposal would allow. Maybe put a limit of the criminal’s actual age, rather than doubled.

The issue points out some of society’s confused thinking around “capacity”. If someone is deemed insane, and lacking the capacity to understand why their actions are wrong, we put them in a hospital rather than a prison (the practical differences may not be great, admittedly). As a patient, their release becomes a question of when they have been cured of their illness rather than of when a specific amount of time has passed. If we thought they had deliberately done wrong in the first place, we would say they have been “rehabilitated” rather than “cured”.

But if someone has “capacity”, we hold them responsible for their actions by making them serve a prison sentence. This is intended to punish them and keep society safe from them; if they rehabilitate themselves, that’s nice, but it won’t automatically mean they get to leave early. On the other hand, unless they are convicted of committing more actual crimes while in prison, they do get to leave when their time is up, even if they are still an obviously nasty person.

I think that’s a pretty crucial point from a civil liberties point of view. I’d be very worried about a system that allows basically open-ended sentencing based on the periodic evaluation of a parole board which is, pretty much by definition, going to consist of people very different in background and outlook from the people they are passing judgment on.

We recognize that young people, by definition, are at somewhat diminished capacity relative to adults. But for philosophical and practical reasons, we don’t want to declare them entirely free from responsibilities for their actions. So we have the juvenile justice system; it also punishes and protects, but most of us would agree that rehabilitation should be much more central in this setting, both in terms of the amount of resources the institution devotes to it and in terms of it being a condition of release.

To the specific case of James Bulger, I think the extreme youth of the killers makes it obvious that they had no capacity, and their situation is one for the mental health care system, not the penal system. I can’t even imagine what to say to a person who would worry that a twenty year prison sentence for these children might be too light.

Just to be clear, the OP notes that the ‘doubled age’ is the Maximum allowed sentence, not the recommended one. As in all things, the circumstances of the crime should and do matter in the sentencing. And you are of course absolutely correct that we have a back and forth in America about how jail serves as Crime Prevention / Punishment / Rehabilitation and what the primary goal should be.

As it stands and per my prior post, I don’t think any rule is perfect, but feel that it is a useful guideline in terms of a maximum. I just want there to be exceptions, for example, if a 14 year old Dylan Roof copycat goes to jail for 28 years and is still talking about race war as a 42 year old. He is likely still too dangerous to be released.

But again, my concerns would have to balanced with your point on equitable evaluation by a review board - I somehow think a 42 year old former white boy would get a better evaluation than if the crime had been an African-American adolescent who shot up a white church… :roll_eyes:

The problem is that we are trying to draw a clear line in the sand over what is, essentially, a philosophical question.

The legal age to consent to sexual relations, join the military, enter into contracts, and the like is 18. We chose that age because we have to choose something – we have to draw that line in the sand somewhere. To a very large extent it’s arbitrary: Morocco, for instance, sets the legal drinking age at 16.

So if someone commits a crime at 17, and someone else commits a very similar crime at 18, is there really a moral or ethical reason not to treat the perpetrators similarly WRT sentencing? Is an 18 year old vastly superior at decision making then a peer a few months younger? I say no – but the legal system says yes. Again, because they have to. They have to draw that line somewhere.

So how far back do we start drawing that line? What limitations do we impose on certain actions and, more directly, what kind of sanctions and punishments do we impose? If a 15 year old boy has sex with his 40 year old teacher the teacher is the one prosecuted and rightfully so – it is assumed that the teenager does not have the mental or emotional maturity o make those kind of decisions but the adult does, and so the responsibility for that crime rests solely on the adult.

So take it to the next logical step. The 15 year old didn’t have sex with an adult but rather robbed a convenience store and shot the proprietor. Should that 15 year old be charged as an adult? Many states have codified the answer as “yes, they should” while simultaneously codifying the assumption that the very same teenager is not mature enough to have sex or smoke a cigarette. If that teenager cannot fully analyze the consequences of their actions – thus necessitating a limit on their behavior and actions – then why should we punish that same teenager for holding up a convenience store? We’ve already acknowledged that they can’t always make good decisions, right?

Well, holding up a convenience store and shooting the clerk is a totally different ball game than lighting up a cigarette. Smoking a cig doesn’t hurt anyone but the smoker. Shooting a clerk? That’s a felony no matter how you cut it. We approach these questions with the assumption that someone, at age 15, knows the difference between right and wrong to such an extent that common and consensual acts by adults, such as smoking and having sex, may cause confusion but something much more cut and dried like robbery and assault cannot be.

So how far back do we go? Should the 15 year old be tried as an adult? I’m remined of the Parker–Hulme muders in New Zealand in the 1950’s. Two girls, 15 and 16, murdered the mother of the 16 year old by bludgeoning her death with a rock. They were ineligible for the death penalty, being minors so instead were sentenced to 5 years each. Upon release they disappeared from the public eye for decades, although in the 90’s the 15year old, now in her 50’s, was revealed to be Anne Perry, a bestselling novelist. The 16 year old opened a private school. Neither of the ever committed a crime again.

I’m also reminded of the case of Willie Bosket who is today 58 years old and has spent less than 4 months of his adult life a free man. He was first sent to a juvenile correctional facility for assaulting someone with a pipe when he was 10. At age 15 he shot and killed, on two separate occasions, two passengers on the NYC subway. He received the then-maximum sentence of 5 years. Upon his release he committed another assault, for which he arrested – 100 days after his release from the juvenile facility in which he was serving his sentence for the murders. While in custody he has committed numerous assaults and is now serving a de facto life sentence. Due to his violent nature he’s been in permanent solitary confinement since 1989

So had Willie Bosket been given a much harsher sentence when he was 10, the two victims on the subway would still be alive. This is a man that clearly needs to be locked up for life, and likely should’ve been at a very young age. But there was no way to know that at the time. We do not assume that an individual who commits a crime is permanently irredeemable – that’s why life sentences (and the death penalty, obviously) are reserved for only the most serious of crimes. Even in those situations parole is usually an option. Bosket will be eligible for parole when he is 100 years old. Parker and Hulme did their (short) time and became law-abiding members of society. Clearly some people can be pay their debt to society and move on, others cannot and will continue to offend. This is why so many states have “three-strikes” laws: if a pattern of behavior develops and a person proves they cannot follow society’s rules then they should be treated harshly.

I think what this boils down to, frankly, is a system that we by and large have in place now.

I think is sort of the idea behind our current system but in reverse: if the sentences for crimes are usually severe, the option for parole is sometimes (often? I don’t know the stats) given. So if someone convicted of a crime is serving a prison sentence and if acknowledge their wrongdoings and show genuine penitence, then they have the option of having their sentence reduced. So instead of tacking on an extended sentence, the extended sentence is the original sentence, with the option of reducing time spent inside if they show adequate remorse.

So finally coming around to the OP, I’m not sure we can delineate a clear rule. The murder of Honorah Parker by her daughter and her daughter’s friend was planned, calculated, and ultimately carried out. The teenage perpetrators did their time and society is no worse off for it. Would it have been better that they were imprisoned until both girls were in their 40’s? I argue not. The murders Willie Bosket committed were essentially crimes of opportunity – the men were killed as Bosket tried to rob them while they slept on the subway, and when they woke up and confronted Bosket he shot them. Had he been handed a lengthier sentence for his first assaults when he was 10 those victims would’ve been spared. Parker and Hulme, however, appear at first glance to be much more “evil,” plotting and planning a murder.

But there’s really no way to predict the future, so we have the system we have. It’s not perfect, but I’ll argue that it’s better than a cut-and-dried rule – especially for juveniles. Advocating that 10 year old child should be locked dup for two decades is almost beyond the pale. That is firmly in “revenge” territory, not rehab and penitence territory IMO.

But then we’re back to the “what if they show no remorse?” question.

Like I said: no easy answers.

Just to be clear, in the interest of PR /votes prosecutors will push for the new maximum every damn time if given a chance.

Since in this case, the maximum is generally far less than would be applied to an adult, that would likely make sense. Let’s be honest, including Mr. Affluenza, American courts do literally treat juveniles, even ones being tried as adults, with kid gloves - because to do otherwise looks just as bad as over-sentencing them.

Every case is going to be different. Since the OP mentioned Ethan Crumbley’s case specfically, we were looking at one count of terrorism (eh, depends on your definition), 4 counts of first degree murder (state invetigators seems to think has a slam-dunk on premeditation), and seven counts of assault with intent to murder, not counting the firearms possession charges.

Given that grouping of crimes, pending any mitigating factors such as bullying (which may or may not apply to one or more of the murders for example), it would seem logical to request the maximum sentence - PR or Not.

I note that Pennsylvania had an acre of people serving life-without-the-possibility for crimes they committed as juveniles. This does not seem to be kid-glove treatment.

I don’t understand why juveniles can be charged as an adult at all. And, if anything, the correlation is wrong – the worse the crime, the more likely that they are charged as an adult. If we don’t think that juveniles are fully responsible for their actions, then they aren’t fully responsible, period. And, a more heinous crime indicates to me that they really don’t understand the consequences of their actions.

Is “acre” a typo?

It can still be imposed for murder, so long as it’s not mandatory (which is very similar to how the death penalty works for adults).

I’m not a big fan of the “one size fits all” approach to sentencing. To me, a lot depends on how heinous the crime, the circumstances involved, the attitude of the defendants, and how I feel about their chances of rehabilitation.

Under this thinking then a juvenile should not be allowed to operate a motor vehicle. If they don’t understand the consequences of their actions then they should not be allowed to do things that can have horrendous results.

Well, in NY and NJ, they can’t unless they take special classes, and then they can drive unsupervised at 17, but not after 11PM and not with more than one other person in the car. But, sure, if a 17 year old has taken criminal law, morality, and ethics classes and then commits a crime, I’m OK with charging them as an adult sometimes.

Under your thinking, they should be allowed to drink and vote. If they understand the consequences of their actions, why have those restrictions?

I agree there needs to be a cut off age on some things. But a 15 year old should know what is going to happen if they take their dads Glock and shoot a bunch of people.

Then, a fifteen year old should know what should happen if they start drinking or should understand the consequences of their vote.

The point is that a child doesn’t really understand the consequences of their actions, and that’s why they are treated differently than adults. A child should also know that shoplifting is wrong, but we don’t treat 15 year old shoplifters as adults. It makes no sense that worse the crime, the more likely that they are charged as adults. It should be the opposite, because committing a graver crime is even more indicative that they don’t understand the implications and consequences.

We do here. They get the same fine as anyone else.

I just don’t agree that a 15 year old doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong and the consequences of such actions, especially when you are talking about something as heinous as premeditated murder.

I think we’re not going to agree on this point.

Back to the OP, I don’t think any sentences should be longer than 20 years, so obviously I would disagree that a 17 year old should be maxed out at 34 years (or a 10 year old at 20 years!!). In my view, prisons are for deterrence and rehabilitation. Is there any evidence that sentences over 20 years are more deterrent? It’s certainly plenty of time for rehabilitation, but our prisons do that poorly.

Twenty years later, you’re basically dealing with a different person, especially for people who were violent in their youth – age just makes people less violent.

Now, maybe I could get on board for longer sentences for white collar crimes – a lot more thought and planning goes into those than a drug addict holding up a convenience store and killing someone during that act. Bernie Madoff meticulously scammed people who trusted him over years, stole people’s life savings, created fake returns, and so on. So, if we must have sentences longer than 20 years, make it for white collar crimes, not violent crimes.

No. I seem to recall Pennsylvania led the nation in the number of people who received such sentences for crimes they committed while a juvenile.