Sending Teenagers To Prison Forever

He's only 14. Could he really be irredeemable?

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has upheld a life sentence for a man who helped throw a boy off a parking ramp when the prisoner was only 14 years old. At issue was whether sentencing someone to life imprisonment without parole for a crime committed at such a young age was prohibited by either the U.S. or the Wisconsin Constitution. The Court ruled not, finding that no national consensus has formed against such sentences.

I can accept that this is the proper legal standard, and that the decision may be correct regarding the law. It is also ethically wrong.

All such problems involve line-drawing and its well-known slippery slopes: if a 19-year old can be sentenced to jail forever, how different is an 18-year-old? 17? 16? Before you know it, we are sentencing 6-year-olds to life imprisonment. We do not have to fall into that trap, however, to declare that it is unethical, though legal, to sentence a 14-year-old boy to an endless jail term. Why? The sentence lacks compassion, mercy, proportion and common sense.

Certainly the crime was a horrible one. Omer Ninham was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide for his role in the death of 13-year-old Zong Vang  in 1998. Ninham and four others between the ages of 13 and 14 accosted the boy  as he was riding his bike home from the grocery store. Ninham and another member of the group teased Vang, punched him, and when Vang ran into a nearby hospital parking ramp, assaulted him on the top floor. Ninham and a friend seized Vang by the wrists and ankles, and as Vang screamed for help, threw him over the edge. He fell five stories, and hit the ground “like a wet bag of cement hitting the pavement,” as a witness put it. Two years later, when Ninham was 16, a judge sentenced him to life without parole.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that sentencing juveniles to death was unconstitutional, and last year ruled that a sentence of life with no parole for anything less than homicide was unconstitutional as well. Such decisions are based on an assessment of what the culture believes is “cruel and unusual punishment,” a standard that is constantly evolving. It shouldn’t take much to convince the culture that taking away the possibility of parole should be based on the chances that a criminal can be reformed, and not solely on the magnitude of the crime. A 14-year-old is an unfinished human being, and certainly committing a terrible murder like Ninham is powerful evidence that the emerging individual is flawed. Still, a teenager can change. How is justice served by ignoring that fact, and refusing to even consider redemption 20, 30 or 40 years in the future?

The Equal Justice Initiative has reported that 73 children age 14 or younger across 18 states have received the sentence of life without parole. These states have certainly rejected the contention of the founder of Boy’s Town, Father Edward J. Flanagan, that “there is no such thing as a bad boy.”  I find the number astounding, and I am amazed that a national consensus against such cruel, excessive and illogical sentences hasn’t already taken hold.

In 1925, Clarence Darrow pleaded for the life of two of the most infamous teen murderers of all time, Nathan Leopold and Dickie Loeb, brilliant sons of wealthy families. The two killed a young boy as an intellectual exercise, to prove they were superior to normal mortals. Nineteen and eighteen at the time, they faced the death penalty, which was then routinely meted out to teens and adults alike if the crime was severe enough. Darrow pled Leopold and Loeb guilty, and then made an appeal to the judge and society to recognize the value of mercy. Against all odds, the judge sentenced them to life without parole, although Leopold was ultimately released from prison in middle age and devoted his life to humanitarian causes.

There are two lessons to take from the example of Leopold and Loeb. One is that Leopold, who though a teen was old enough to be considered more responsible for his crime than any of the currently imprisoned 14-year-olds, was rehabilitated….and his murder of little Bobby Franks was every bit as cold-blooded and depraved as what Omer Ninham did to Zong Vang.

The other lesson resides for all time in the words of Clarence Darrow’s closing plea. He was arguing against the death penalty for his clients, but his argument is equally applicable to the plight of young defendants facing life without parole today:

“Your honor, none of us are unmindful of the public. I cannot say how people feel. I have stood here for three months as one might stand at the ocean trying to sweep back the tide. I hope the seas are subsiding and the wind is falling, and I believe they are, but I wish to make no false pretense to this court. The easy thing and the popular thing to do is to hang Dickie Loeb and Babe Leopold. I know it. Men and women who do not think will applaud. The cruel and thoughtless will approve. It will be easy today; but in Chicago, and reading out over the length and breadth of the land, more and more fathers and mothers, the humane, the kind and the hopeful, who are gaining an understanding and asking questions not only about these poor boys, but about their own – these will join in no acclaim at the death of my clients. They would ask that the shedding of blood be stopped, and that the normal feelings of man resume their sway.

“But, Your Honor, what they shall ask may not count. I know the easy way. I know your honor stands between the future and the past. I know the future is with me, and what I stand for here; not merely for the lives of these two unfortunate lads, but for all boys and all girls; for all of the young, and, as far as possible, for all of the old. I am pleading for life, understanding, charity, kindness, and the infinite mercy that considers all.

“I am pleading that we overcome cruelty with kindness, and hatred with love. I know the future is on my side. You may hang these boys; you may hang them by the neck until they are dead. But in doing it you will turn your face toward the past. In doing it you are making it harder for every other boy who in ignorance and darkness must grope his way through the mazes which only childhood knows. You may save them and make it easier for every child that sometime may stand where these boys stand. You will make it easier for every human being with an aspiration and a vision and a hope and a fate. I am pleading for the future; I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by reason and judgement and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.”

9 thoughts on “Sending Teenagers To Prison Forever

  1. It’s a little weird to think that someone couldn’t be rehabilitated when they will be spending at least twice the time in prison that they lived up to that point. Of course, there’s a chance that he won’t be, but the lack of parole would preclude that.

    Is there a legal distinction between “Without parole” and “no possibility of parole?” I hear that on Forensic Files a lot, and I wonder if there’s a difference.

  2. Such decisions are based on an assessment of what the culture believes is “cruel and unusual punishment,” a standard that is constantly evolving.

    And if the standard evolved such that torture of prisoners was no longer considered cruel and unusual punishment?

    How is justice served by ignoring that fact, and refusing to even consider redemption 20, 30 or 40 years in the future?

    There is a clemency process. Sentences can be commuted.

    The Equal Justice Initiative has reported that 73 children age 14 or younger across 18 states have received the sentence of life without parole.

    Only seventy-three?

    There is a reason why this is so rare. The vast majority of crimes committed by juveniles do not involve premeditation. Even most homicides are treated as manslaughters or second-degree murders.

    But this does not mean it is impossible for juveniles to be capable of premeditation.

    And this sentence, even if upheld, does not mean that Ninham will die of old age in prison. As Jeff Jacoby pointed out

    But in fact, murderers are never locked up for life. When was the last time a murderer died of old age in a Massachusetts prison? I asked the Department of Correction, and it couldn’t find one example. Willie Horton’s 1974 sentence for an exceedingly vicious murder was, quote-unquote, “life with no possibility of parole.” By 1986 he was free to rape a Maryland woman and torture her fiance.

    When we can learn by reason and judgement and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.

    In other words, he was arguing for appeasement.

    He could be excused though, as the consequences of appeasement would not be apparent for twenty years.

    • How appeasement?Darrow believed that there was no free will, that criminals were not responsible for the conditions that made them kill.

      Clemency? Not a fair consideration. It’s like winning the lottery. Willy Horton wasn’t released, he was “furloughed.”

      The case at hand wasn’t premeditated, it was just especially cruel and vile.

      • The case at hand wasn’t premeditated, it was just especially cruel and vile.

        The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled otherwise. Ninham was guilty of intentional homicide.

        Darrow believed that there was no free will, that criminals were not responsible for the conditions that made them kill.

        I wonder if he believed society was not resp0nsible for the conditions that made them punish criminals.

          • Darrow’s position is logically untenable. If individual’s do not have free will, and are thus, not responsible for their actions, then the same applies to societies.*

            *This statement is valid in basic logic, but quantum physics disagrees. I’m assuming Darrow didn’t have great insight into quantum physics.

  3. I’m in agreement as far as the “possibility of parole”, Jack. Certainly, I agree that a 14 year old boy is (as I’ve often put it) a human being in the process of development. But the fact remains that this “child” was adult enough- and disturbed enough- to commit one of the most cold blooded forms of murder possible on another child. If he was capable of THAT at 14, what follows? Is it logical to assume that he’ll “grow out of it” in adulthood? Hardly. It’s almost a given that he will remain a dangerous killer and likely more dangerous with time, regardless of environment. I dearly wish I could say different. Every child’s life and soul is a precious thing. But so was that of Zong Vang. The question any jury or parole board has to ask themselves under any circumstance like this is whether or not they’d be comfortable with this juvenile around THEIR children. That’s the bottom line. One dead child is one too many.

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