Should Young Teens Receive Life without Parole?

3 11 2009

Despite growing up in an abusive household with a drug-addicted mother, Sara Kruzan was a self-described “overachiever” in school.  At the age of 11, an older man named G.G. approached her and took her under his wing, showering her with gifts, taking her and her friends roller-skating and positioning himself as a “father figure” to Sara.  

After G.G. had gained Sara’s trust, he began priming her for prostitution, telling her she didn’t need to “give it up for free.”  By the time she turned 13, G.G. had raped her repeatedly to “break [her] in” and put her out on the streets to work for him as a full-time prostitute.  Sara worked 12-hour shifts as a prostitute for G.G. for three years, giving him all the money she made and enduring his physical abuse.  Sara murdered her abusive pimp at the age of 16 and was sentenced to life without parole by a judge who told her she “lacked moral scruples.” 

According to an article at, over 2,500 people in America are condemned to die in prison for crimes they committed before they turned 18.  Many of these teenage criminals came from abusive situations, some of them are serving these harsh sentences for crimes other than murder.  

Two Supreme Court cases on the docket this month– Sullivan v. Florida and Graham v. Florida– will decide the constitutionality of sentencing children to life without parole.  

The Sullivan case is particularly surprising.  The petitioner, Joe Sullivan, was 13 years old and mentally disabled in 1989 when he was accused by two older teenagers of raping an elderly white woman.  The woman could not identify which boy raped her, only that he was “colored,” which all three of them were by her standards.  A jury decided that Sullivan had committed the crime, and he was sentenced to life without parole after a one-day trial.


Joe Sullivan, 2009

Sullivan was sent to prison, where he was repeatedly assaulted by much older and bigger men.  He is now in a wheelchair, continuing to serve his life sentence for a rape that he may or may not have committed as a little boy. 

Of course, the above cases are unusually extreme, and I am not so naive as to think that everyone who commits a murder or heinous crime under the age of 18 deserves our sympathy or can be reformed.  But what kind of judge sentences a 13- year-old mentally disabled kid to life without parole for rape?  He should serve time among criminals his own age, then undergo thorough psychiatric treatment and evaluation until he is fit to re-enter society.

Likewise, it is clear from the video of Sara Kruzan that if she were released after some jail-time and rehabilitation, she could become a law-abiding, contributing member of society.  She is not a cold-blooded murderer– she killed her abuser and captor because she saw no other way out.  

I’m sure my law student commenters will jump on me for saying this, because I haven’t studied due process or torts or whatever it is that’s relevant here, but I think something is very wrong with a legal system in which creeps like Phillip Garrido can be released after 11 years in prison for kidnapping and raping a child for hours as an adult, but a young boy gets life without parole for a lesser crime.  Criminal sentencing should take into account the likelihood of that person committing similar crimes again, and the relative ability of that criminal to respond to rehab and reform efforts.  A man who kidnaps and rapes children will probably always be a man who kidnaps and rapes children, but a teenager who kills her abusive pimp has more of a chance to learn from her mistakes.

Is that a ridiculous way to approach the law?  What do you guys think?




23 responses

3 11 2009

Once we get finished kinda ( but not really at all ) fixing the health care system, we can start working on the legal system.

The land of freedom has more prisoners per capita than any other country, a large portion of them non violent drug offenses. end the drug war, take private corporations out of the legal system, and watch things change overnight. Added bonus: the mexican government can get its job back from the drug gangs that are currently running the country.

however, if something as easy as health care is such a clusterf#$@ imagine trying to pass a bill that would let a few hundred thousand black men out out of prison…..hah

3 11 2009

at least the DOJ is taking babysteps in the right direction, no?

3 11 2009

i’ll give you that, it is a step in the right direction. but i’ll believe it when i see it. Right now, it’s just a DoJ memo that can be overturned by the next administration or pressure after the next high profile drug death.

it’s kind of funny, since it’s one of the only tangible ‘changes’ that the obama administration is following through on (and he didn’t even campaign on it).

3 11 2009

yes, a pity that he didnt campaign on not prosecuting marijuana so much. that would have helped him i think. 🙂

4 11 2009

rather a pity that he didn’t hand down a memo abolishing insurance companies and let congress debate pot reform for 6 months.

3 11 2009
Geof Boyle

Any vigilante worth his or her salt would have been happy to pull the trigger on that SOB for her (unless one wonders what created a person like that? Accountability is the crux. Do monsters create themselves or are they created?). I think a lawyer would say she could have premeditated an escape plan rather than a murder. Self-defense, which is what we think she was doing in some kind of existential sense, only legally happens during a moment that you could not have reasonably anticipated. She anticipated the moment.

So, she did a wrong thing, but it is a cruel society that responds so harshly.

3 11 2009

Finally a subject to which leverman can speak with some authority. This is not an easy subject. First you have to define “young teen”. It is way too easy if you pick an abused 13 yr old who then ends up getting raped or beaten in an adult prison as your example.

When does a teenager become an adult? At age eighteen? It is an arbitrary number anyway. Why not sixteen, seventeen or nineteen? At any of those ages they might have some valid claim their crime was a product of their environment or upbringing. The victim who gets shot in the head and his family get the same outcome no matter what stage of teenness (made that word up and now claim trademark) the shooter is in.

The reason teens are tried as adults is that more than ever, young teenagers are dangerously violent. They are not only violent, but system savvy as well. What is the deterrent to a sixteen year old raping and murdering you if he can only be tried as a juvenile and released at age eighteen? When that sixteen year old gets released at age eighteen and murders your friend or family member, will you really care that much about him being a product of his upbringing? These kids well know the age they get tried as an adult and sometimes pass the gun to the youngest one.

States started trying teens as adults for certain violent crimes to deter the crimes and to protect society. What age they declare them to be adults is left to each state. Without doing a survey I would predict that the in states where violent teenage crime is prevalent, the age the teenness stage kicks in is lower (now I am wondering in my new word if I should have put two n’s or one). This is how it should be. The states should be free to make their own laws absent an amendment to the US Constitution that declares an age when a teenager can be prosecuted.

The answer lies in sentencing laws. In many cases judges are given discretion in sentencing. They can consider mitigating circumstances to reduce a sentence and aggravating circumstances to increase one. That works well if you have intelligent and fair judges, a whole problem for a different day. With most teenage crimes some consideration is given to the age of the offender. The problem comes with mandatory life sentences typically reserved for murders. Some states do allow more discretion than others in sentencing. A judge should consider the age and background of an offender when sentencing.

Remember that once someone has taken a life, the odds of them doing it again are way, way more than someone who has never murdered. The judicial system has to balance our right to be protected with the fact that some young teens who commit crimes might be rehabilitated. There is no right answer to that one nor some bright line law you can write. You just have to hope you have elected wise legislators to write fair laws and wise judges to implement them in a balanced manner.

Its just not an easy topic. For every thirteen year old you can show who got beat up in prison, someone can show you a dozen thirteen year olds who the court system treated too leniently and committed more violent crimes. Your example of the mentally disabled thirteen year old might not even be what it seems. Sometimes examples such as those are written only from one point of view. I do not doubt, however, that there are teens caught up in the system that might be better rehabilitated outside of a hard labor environment.

I wish someone could get at the root cause. Kids who have parents and family who love them are far less likely to commit these crimes. I am sorry sometimes the wrong kids get caught up in the judicial net. We have a right to be safe, though, and I support prosecuting teens who commit violent acts as adults. At what age? You got me. Sixteen seems about right. If a fifteen year old kneecaps me next week, I could go down a year.

4 11 2009

so you would not support a federal definition of what constitutes a teenager, similar to the way in which legal retardation is defined? the problem with leaving it up to the states to determine where juveniles begin and end is that its completely arbitrary, subject to the political whims of the state and the decision makers involved, and I would wager that it is conservative states, not states with necessarily more teen crime, that have lower ages at which adult prosecution begins. I have nothing to back this up, but that is my guess having seen firsthand how it is usually conservatives who drive mandatory minimums and are thirsting to prosecute teens as adults, despite ample cognitive and behavioral psychology literature that is fairly consistent in its assertions that there are very real biochemical differences between juvenile brains and adult brains and this manifests in decision making abilities, logic, and anticipating consequences because their brains and neural pathways etc are not fully formed. you present ‘teenness’ as if they are savvy crafty decision makers anticipating every consequence, and they are not, which is why we even have a classification for juveniles in the first place.

also, your example about a 16 year old committing a crime and then getting out at 18 and doing it again-this speaks to me less as an example of how teen offenders are permanently dangerous as a whole (some undoubtedly are) and more about the failure of our justice/jail system to rehabilitate offenders whose crimes are more of a reaction to their surroundings and circumstances and less of a permanent violent behavioral compulsion (these distinctions are made all the time at parole hearings and at sentencing). we need only look elsewhere to countries with justice systems more focused on rehabilitation and education to know that our system is a gigantic failure. arizona being one current glaring example.

4 11 2009

democracy now had someone on within the last two weeks talking about exactly that. the difference between a teenage brain (specifically a males) and that of an adult.

can’t find it.

4 11 2009
Geof Boyle

Democracy now: was it something to do with cognitive ability to assess of risk and long-term consequences does not fully develop until mid-twenties? Cause of Badass Syndrome discovered?
Funny stat that heard: 90% of snake bites to women are on ankles and legs. 90% of bites on men are hands and face.

4 11 2009
Geof Boyle

I wish there was an edit feature on wordpress.

Democracy now: was it about how the cognitive ability to assess risk and long-term consequences does not fully develop in males until mid-twenties? Cause of Badass Syndrome discovered?
Funny stat that heard: 90% of snake bites to women are on ankles and legs. 90% of snake bites to men are hands and face.

4 11 2009

Geoff: yes!

3 11 2009

whats next lb? we gonna tackle roe v. wade here?

4 11 2009

To put it bluntly: Some people give up their right to live. That piece of shit got what was coming to him and I personally think that Ms. Kurzan should be applauded for getting rid of some of the noxious scum that exists in our world. She should be given a medal and she should write an instruction manual for “cleaning” that should be given to all those who have been unfortunate enough to fall into the same circumstances she was forced into (which is an astronomically HUGE number.)

All those men–if you can call them that–who engage in this hideous excuse for humanity (pimping/human trafficking/sex slavery/etc.) deserve to be sadistically tortured for many years before they are forced to take as much more pain and suffering as is possible to inflict.
No second chances–No mercy–No exceptions.

Fuck what the law says–they deserve to burn!

4 11 2009
Geof Boyle

गेब्रियल Fuck the law? How are we to ensure that this torture is evenly applied? And should the new guy who has only sold one sex slave be tortured for five years along with the guy who sold 100 sex slaves? What about the guy who drives a cab and is swept up in a sting just because he happened to pick up a sex trader that day? Doesn’t seem fair. Also, who is going to pay for this? Forget about what the CIA pays their torturers, just think about the facitilities costs. This sounds more expensive than Gitmo.

4 11 2009

i’d like to see the same same passion for punishment for people that commit corporate crimes.

The negative impact of let’s say Goldman Sachs is 10000X on society that some bum or rapist.

But people find it much easier to get excited over the latter.

4 11 2009

speaking of corporate crimes, your friend walmart, AND democracy now…

4 11 2009

Whoever commented directly above should euthanize his own ideas of an efficient legal system rather than proposing automatic “burning” for serious criminals. The 8th Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment has never been interpreted, nor should it be, as allowing the state to take a life when no life has been taken. (Kennedy v. La.)

I agree with districtramblings. There are two main theories for punishment – retributionism and utilitarianism. A retributionist believes that when an individual has committed a wrong, it is society’s duty and privilege to punish the individual — “an eye for an eye.” This theory has given way to the more, in my opinion, thoughtful and educated theory of utilitarianism, which asks several key questions; i.e. does the punishment deter? What are the chances at rehabilitation (of the criminal)? etc.

Rape, murder, and most other serious crimes are committed by YOUNG people. Therefore, there’s a serious utilitarian objective to be accomplished by giving a youngster such as Sullivan a sentence where he’ll be incarcerated until he’s non-threatening. A practice like this would not only save the lives of thousands of people incarcerated for life for acts they committed as juveniles, but it would also save our country millions of tax dollars spent on administrative fees annually.

Anyone can look at a rapist, point at him/her, and say “that’s a piece of ****.” However, with just a little bit of thought and energy, maybe we should ask “why?” he/she’s like that, and “how?” we could fix it.

4 11 2009
Geof Boyle

Taylors’ Friend, great points, but I would say that for many people mercy and understanding requires a lot of thought that is supported by things they aren’t yet aware of, while revenge lust is easy and satisfying and just feels so right. And they say liberals are emotionally driven while conservatives are rational.

Much of the prison-industrial complex is a profit driven machine. Some states actually lease their prison space to other states. I don’t suspect this will change very soon. I think some carefully written legislation that provides financial rewards to the prisons that demonstrate a high rate of genuine rehabilitation might be one part of a solution, in addition to the more obvious possibility of better support systems to recently released criminals. Not sure about how this would break down between the federal and state prison systems.

How about this? Adolescents who commit violent crimes should to be sent to ABA programs run by the same types of amazing people who help kids with other less extreme behavioral issues. ABA conditions correct behaviors in kids who are functionally unable to learn them on our own. I’ve heard several teachers say that ABA can be used on anybody with very positive results. ABA does not teach kids how to get really strong, make creepy religious tattoos, or learn new crime techniques, so when they make it into a reality TV show, it will probably will be less like Supermax: Life on the Inside and more like Nanny911.

4 11 2009

Amen, Geof.

4 11 2009

Interesting thoughts, Taylor’s friend. You seem a bit too scholarly to be one of Taylor’s friends, but maybe that is a topic for another day. 🙂

There are four goals judges consider and balance in sentencing. They are, in no particular order, punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation and protection of society. Which one might interest a person most depends on where they are in the food chain.

Victims are often most interested in punishment, or retribution as you say. We are taught that the ability to forgive is a virtue. The need for retribution is seen as one of our baser instincts. Its easier to want to rehabilitate and forgive when you or a family member are not a victim. Its hard to put yourself into the shoes of someone who has had a family member raped and beaten to death. Punishment is very important to many victims.

Everyone who is remotely enlightened would agree rehabilitation should be a goal of sentencing. Our prisons are overcrowded. We have the largest prison population per capita of any country in the world. One of nine black men are in jail. Why are we not doing it better? I do not know. I know there are profound attempts at many prisons all around our country to rehabiliate. Virtually every prison has a work release program. Most all have ministries. Recidivism is the problem. These teenagers can fool you so easily. They might be genuinely remorseful. Statistically most will revert to criminal behaviour when they get out.

Deterrence is one main goal of trying juveniles as adults. These kids are savvy and well know the law. A sixteen year old faced with life in prison might be just a little bit less likely to kill you than one facing a couple of years in a juvenile home.

Protection of society is the real reason our jails are full. It has become so hard to tell which kids can be rehabilitated and which can not. The easy way out is for judges to give maximum sentences, thats what their constiuents want to hear. Figuring out who is safe to be released requires that you have highly trained and skilled people making difficult decisions. Is way so much easier to keep everyone locked up. The average Joe on the street just wants to feel protected and he votes for tough on crime judges.

You and District Rambling share very idealistic views that sound great in theory but are very hard in practice. Leave them in until they become non threatening is your plan. Ever deal with that population? Any idea how difficult it is to know? Who makes that call? Taylor’s friend, I have dealt with that population a great deal. I am not smart enough to know who is conning me and who is not. More problematical is that many of them are very sincere in telling you they want to lead productive lifes. Most of them will disappoint. Drugs is the real problem. They will either hurt someone looking for drugs or hurt someone while they are on drugs once they get out.

Now I am not saying lock them up and throw away the key. We have to do better. Its just important to understand its not so simple as saying we should not incarcerate teens or give them harsh sentences.

I voted for President Obama partly because of his idealism appealed to me. He would get us out of Iraq. He would close Guantanamo prison. Somewhere along the way after he got elected he learned it just was not that easy. We have bad guys in Guantanamo who want to do us harm. I am sure mixed in with the bad guys are some misguided young Muslims. I think Obama was sincere, but now that he is President he sees its not just that simple. Who decides who is not threatening anymore? What criteria do we use? What will he do with the prisoners at Guantanamo and why has he not done it?

We do have pardon, probation and parole boards. Hopefully the people on these boards will make wise decisions. We all want to see young people rehabbed and returned to society in a prodcutive way. Most of us responding to DCs blog do not have to worry about Joe moving in next to them if he gets out. When you and DC have kids, will you both want Joe Sullivan living across the street? Its a tough issue and I am glad young folks like you and DC are giving it serious thought. Joe’s story sounds very sad. He might have been wrongly convicted. The original post almost makes Joe sound like the victim and fails to state that Sullivan had an extensive criminal record and admitted ransacking the victim’s home. The fact he denied a brutal rape of a 72 year old woman does not rule out that he did.

Joe himself has had more than a hundred incidents of fighting and threatening other inmates. Let us also not rule out that Joe might be guilty of rape and a very dangerous person. Good discussion.

4 11 2009

more than a hundred incidents of fighting and threatening other inmates in jail? let us not rule out the very real tendency to make inmates even more violent than when they entered. many of the one in 10 black men in jail now are there on some stupid drug possession charge that is overwhelming our system. people otherwise nonviolent offenders enter the zoo that is a prison and commit offenses inside they would not have otherwise done, whether joining a gang, playing the game, or self-defense-our prison system permits this pattern, so the causality is hard to determine in a case like sullivan’s, wouldnt you say?

5 11 2009
Geof Boyle

Causality–exactly, Bros. Defenders of the status quo sometimes recite the parts of a system without explaining the causal relationships between the parts.

“You and District Rambling share very idealistic views that sound great in theory but are very hard in practice”

Don’t agree at all with second half…the penal system has yet to practice these views, as I understand them. Parole boards, pardons, and probation all come after the fact of the problems that exist in the prison, where all of the wrong patterns of behavior and modes of thought are propagated.

I have worked with nutty kids too, although in schools not prisons. Their patterns of behavior are learned in response to dysfunctional home lives, are not rational, and are emotionally motivated. They often have a very difficult time dealing with emotions. People don’t usually get better at it by going to prison.

“These kids are savvy and well know the law.”

So what? Then why is there recidivism? Either the punishment isn’t a deterrent, or their brains aren’t working right. Their ability to intern as paralegals doesn’t explain the recidivicm. What about the above mentioned studies on the inability of teens and male teens in particular to assess the risk of getting caught? They are saavy only to a point, which is why they later make the same mistakes again. Somewhere therein lies a workable solution.

“Drugs is the real problem”
Well, sort of true. I feel like it is a lie of omission to state it this way, and it fools naive people like Nancy Reagan into thinking “we’ll just get rid of all the drugs and then everything will be ok”. A better way to state the problem is the behaviors associated with physical addiction to an illegal substance, or, various problems associated with addiction, which has a strong correlation to cycles of poverty and the historical legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism, or the simple fact that drugs are artificially expensive b/c they are illegal.

“Protection of society is the real reason our jails are full.”
As Bros points out, many of the people imprisoned under these laws are not violent. In fact, they take up spaces that could be occupied by violent criminals who, oddly enough, received shorter sentences or are parole eligible earlier.

“Leave them in until they become non threatening is your plan.”
I don’t think anyone said this specifically. I know that I stated the opposite when I brought up ABA for youth offenders. The society (speaking broadly here, any group of humans coexisting is a society) that exists in prisons need to be completely dismantled and rebuilt in a way that engenders the types of behaviors we want to see in the prisoners when they re-enter society.

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