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Violent juveniles serving life without parole: When victims of crime disagree

August 7, 2009

Two victims of crime who have been active on many issues related to
criminal justice reform testified at this hearing in June before the Senate
Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security
in Washington,
D.C. The witnesses included Linda White, member of Murder Victims for
Reconciliation, from Texas and Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, co-founder of the
National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, from Illinois. Both victims
were at one time working with my organization, The Justice and Reconciliation
Project, a national nonprofit that organized and educated victims of crime
about restorative justice. Until the closing of the JRP this year, Ms.
Jenkins served on the board of directors of JRP. Both victims support
restorative justice. Yet, on this subject they do not see eye to eye.

As you listen to the hearing, or read the testimony, you will hear
restorative justice mentioned. The issue of how to treat juveniles offenders who
have received life sentences without the possibility of parole is a very
tough issue. This bill, HR 2289, called the Juvenile Justice
Accountability and Improvement Act of 2009, is looking at how we
sentence violent juveniles to life in prison and opening the debate about
future treatment and sentencing of such violent juveniles. My hope is
to stimulate discussion on this subject especially in the light of
restorative justice. I hope that with this national discussion it might be
possible to come to a place of common ground especially among the crime victims’

I am aware that Ms. Jenkins’ concerns include the issue of retroactivity,
that is how to apply this type of legislation to cases where such juveniles have
already received a life without parole sentence. This legislation as it is
now written would re-open cases like Jennifer’s. Jennifer’s
sister, Nancy Bishop Langert, her husband, Richard, and their un-born
child were victims of a vicious murder in 1990. The life sentence that
applies to the offender in her family’s case would be in question. While the
offender received a life without parole sentence the chance of the offender
getting out of prison some day has victims like Jennifer reeling. Part of
Jennifer’s argument is that bringing family members before a parole board every
2-3 years for the rest of their lives, given that family members often do oppose
release of violent offenders after the murder of a loved one, has a devastating
effect on the victim’s family for life.

Linda White, also a victim of violent crime whose daughter Cathy was
brutally murdered in 1986, sees it differently. Ms. White believes we should
treat juvenile offenders differently, especially since the acts of violence
committed by these juveniles were committed often at an
early age. White also argues that through rehabilitation type programs
change in an offender is possible. She believes that at the very least
these juvenile offenders should have the chance for parole. White met the
man who killed her daughter in a mediated dialogue set up through the Texas
Department of Criminal Justice and its Victim’s Services Division. This dialogue had a deep effect on Ms.
White and her view of this offender.   

I will not go into every argument posed by each victim as they
testified. You can view that for yourself. But it is clear to me that
victims should always have the right to be at the table when laws are made that
will affect them. In a system based on restorative justice that would be the
ideal. That after all is what restorative justice is all about. I call it
victims-driven restorative justice for without the victim in the center all good
reforms of the criminal justice are not restorative justice. Should the views of
victims have more weight than others ? I think the views of victims
should carry weight, yes. How much weight they should wield is the
question. Increasingly, though, crime victims are disagreeing publicly on many
issues. Some of those issues include the death penalty, and whether it
should be abolished, or whether we need additional laws that
require offenders serve more and more prison time (or even be eligible for
the death penalty), or this issue considering whether juveniles should be
given life without parole sentences.  

Brokering a position on legislation, no matter how complicated, is
something that happens all the time. I know because I’ve written legislation and
have lobbied for and against legislation related to many subjects including
issues related to criminal justice. This is not new. Can common
ground be built? I think it can even on this highly explosive subject. But it
will take some kind of give and take on both sides.  One thing is
essential, however. There must be mutual respect between the two (or more)
sides as the negotiations on the legislation takes place. Certainly this
legislation will not stand or fall because of the views of crime victims;
however, saying that it is also my experience that their views do matter and
lawmakers do listen.  Public opinion is also affected by the
stories they hear from crime victims.

Isn’t that what restorative justice is all about? A dialogue must
begin. What are we trying to fix here? I would say we are trying to fix a
terribly broken criminal justice system that does not work for the victim (or
their families), the offender (and yes, their families) and the communities torn
by crime. How do we move past this to a place of safer communities that
begin to restore or heal victims as much as possible as well as the communities
also in need of restoration?  We sit down and have that


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