The perspectives of victims of crimes are an important component of a criminal justice system. Human Rights Watch interviewed individuals who had a family member killed by a teenager and asked for their opinions on the sentence of life without parole for juveniles. Those interviews are reflected below.
Victims’ perspectives on sentencing are at times presented as uniformly in favor of life without parole for juveniles.162 This is inaccurate. “Victims’ perspectives are as broad as the human race,” explained Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, a nationally active victims’ rights advocate.163 Some victims believe the fact that a perpetrator is a juvenile is not relevant to sentencing issues. “Adult crime, adult time” was a rallying cry for increased criminal penalties for youth in the 1990s and reflects the perspective of some victims who believe youth should face the full panoply of adult sentences, including life without parole. Other victims, however, believe that juveniles should be treated differently from adults and that it is wrong to incarcerate them with no opportunity to later prove they have changed their lives.
“Victims’ perspectives are as broad as the human race.” — Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins
The five people Human Rights Watch interviewed all had experienced terrible crimes and the resulting pain and loss. Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins’s pregnant sister and her sister’s husband were murdered by a 16-year-old. Maggie Elvey’s husband was beaten to death at his store by a 15- and a 16-year-old. Azim Khamisa’s son, a 20-year-old college student, was delivering pizzas when a 14-year-old shot him. Bill Pelke’s grandmother was stabbed to death by a 15-year-old who broke into her home and robbed her. Melanie Washington’s son was killed in a drunken rage by his 17-year-old friend. While each crime was devastating to family members, each person interviewed arrived at very different positions on whether it is right to give a sentence with no possibility of parole to a juvenile.164 These five people cannot represent the full spectrum of victim opinions, nor is such a small sample representative.
Most people we spoke with would probably agree with Bill Pelke’s statement, “The penalty can never be enough for a murder, that’s just a fact. Regardless of what we do to the person who committed the crime, we aren’t going to bring back the person who was killed.”165
“To say that a young person could never be released, regardless of what kind of transformation they go through — that’s wrong.” — Bill Pelke
Yet victim survivors like Pelke are grounded in the belief of redemption; young people should be given the opportunity to change, and if they do, the opportunity for parole. Pelke said, “I’m opposed to LWOP for teenagers. To say that a young person could never be released, regardless of what kind of transformation they go through—that’s wrong.”
Pelke also represents those who believe the difference between juveniles and adults is one reason that youth should not be subject to life without parole. “We’ve got to recognize that they are not the same as adults in terms of mental capacity, and so the [criminal] penalties they face should be different. We recognize that they are different by not letting them drink, by not letting them vote. It doesn’t make sense to given them the same criminal penalties as adults.”166
Azim Khamisa said of teenagers like his son’s killer, “Putting them away for life doesn’t accomplish anything. It’s barbaric. We have to get away from ‘an eye for an eye’—you know what Gandhi said about that? ‘An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.’”167
Khamisa believes that the correct analysis involves a picture bigger than just the crime. “I am a believer in restorative justice,” he told Human Rights Watch, referring to a theory of criminal justice that takes into account the injury caused by crime to the victim, perpetrator, and community. When reflecting on the circumstances surrounding his son’s murder, he said, “What I see here is a victim at both ends of the gap. My son was the victim of his assailant, and this boy [his assailant] was a victim of society.” Describing the background of the boy who killed his son, he explained that he was born to a 15-year-old mother who was unable to protect him from physical abuse by his father and sexual abuse from another family member. At age nine the boy was sent away to live with his grandfather, at 11 he joined a gang. “At 14 years old, he killed my son.” Khamisa believes prison for juveniles should be focused on rehabilitation. “With juveniles it’s do-able. They are still at an age where you can influence them to be positive role models.” For a number of years Khamisa has been in contact with his son’s killer, and finds him to be an example of the kind of change that can happen for a young person. “Tony is 26, and he has experienced a total transformation. He has gone from a gang-banger to someone who is a peacemaker.”168
“When they do these violent, brutal crimes, I don’t care what age they are, they need to be held accountable and that means never getting out of prison.” — Maggie Elvey
Elsewhere on the spectrum are victims for whom the age, the possibility of change, or other factors about the defendant are not relevant to the sentence. Their focus is the crime itself. “When they do these violent, brutal crimes, I don’t care what age they are, they need to be held accountable and that means never getting out of prison,” said Maggie Elvey.169 “Society seems to think now that it is OK to kill someone and the killer should expect to get out of prison and walk the face of the earth again. The victim’s family can’t expect their murdered loved one to walk on the face of the earth again. Years ago we learned that if you take a life, you lose yours. But now, there are no morals, no respect for life, and no accountability for bad choices.”
Elvey believes life without parole is an appropriate sentence for juveniles, even for those who did not actually commit the murder. When asked about cases in which a youth was not the trigger person, such as where a youth may have participated in a robbery during which a codefendant unexpectedly killed someone, Elvey stands firm in her belief that life without parole is a just sentence and that it serves as a deterrent to future crime. “The thing is, they go along with a crowd…They’ve got to learn that this is what is going to happen.”170
Christine Ward is the director of the Doris Tate Victims Bureau in California. Speaking to the issue of parole generally, she explained why she thinks the focus should be on the crime. “Taking somebody’s life…as far as I’m concerned, you don’t get a do-over. That’s a done deal,” she says. “That victim doesn’t get a second chance.”171
Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins has more mixed stance on life without parole for juveniles. “I believe we need life without parole for some cases, although I think it should be extremely rare,” Bishop-Jenkins stated. “With juveniles, it’s a different problem [than with adults]…I’m not going to argue that this sentence needs to keep being given.” She believes that some people, even juveniles, should never be released and that sentencing options should include ways to sentence youth to life without parole. “Personally, I believe we need [life without parole]…for the worst of the worst. There are some [people] who are so dangerous–I’m talking about someone like Charles Manson, or like [the offender] in my sister’s case.” She noted, though, that some juveniles have been wrongly sentenced to life without parole. “Here in Illinois there are clearly some that were sentenced to life without parole who shouldn’t have gotten that sentence.”172
Although he opposes life without parole for teens, Pelke said, “I don’t mean they should be automatically paroled.” He thinks the sentencing system should provide options based on whether a person has changed. “[I]f after a number of years a person becomes rehabilitated and is not a threat to society, then parole should be an option,” he told Human Rights Watch. “I believe there are some who might never be rehabilitated, never be reformed, and those people should stay in prison.”
“If [my son's killer] knew he could get out in 25 years, I think he would be different. It would motivate him.” —Melanie Washington
Having experienced the murders of four family members over a 20-year period, Melanie Washington explained that she looks for a middle ground between the needs of victims and what society should do with young offenders.173 “When a child commits a crime, there should be a lot more to it than just throwing him in prison. We need to first evaluate these kids. They’re children,” she said. At the same time, she believes that a lengthy sentence for murder is justified. “It’s not right when [judges] don’t give a long enough sentence, like just 10 or 20 years for murder. I can agree that 25 years is enough.” In Washington’s view, however, punishment should be balanced with the opportunity for a prisoner to show he has changed. “If you show yourself improved, you should be able to get out [of prison.] If in 25 years you’ve not shown improvement—then you don’t get out.” Washington turned her personal grief into work with youth in California’s Department of Juvenile Justice (formerly known as the California Youth Authority or CYA). She notes the motivation that the possibility of parole would provide is important. Speaking of her son’s killer, with whom she has had contact with over the years, she reflects on his rough time in prison. “If he knew he could get out in 25 years, I think he would be different. It would motivate him.” Instead, he appears to be depressed and without hope. Washington’s experience with California’s prison systems leads her to conclude that the system does not offer enough to help prisoners turn their lives around. “We need to do a big overhaul of the system,” she told us.174
Sentencing laws vary widely from state to state, and California has stringent sentencing laws. If life without parole was made illegal for juveniles, California’s existing laws would likely accommodate Bishop-Jenkins, Pelke, and Washington’s belief that there needs to be an option to keep some juveniles in prison. California has a strict parole system. For example, in a 25-to-life sentence for murder, a prisoner would only have the opportunity to be paroled after serving 25 years. There are no reductions in the minimum time served for a murder conviction.175 Even then, parole is merely an option and won only through the prisoner demonstrating rehabilitation. In addition, California law provides multiple ways in which sentences can be ordered to run consecutively.
Bishop-Jenkins and other victims’ advocates voice concern about the effect of parole hearings for family members of victims. “We have to balance what is too hard on an offender and what’s too hard on a victim,” she states. Existing California permits up to five years between parole hearings for murder cases.
Pelke sums up his perspective with a plea that the bigger picture be brought into focus. “I understand the pain, I understand the anger that people feel [toward a perpetrator], but we can’t live in that type of world. We need to figure out how to move forward.”176
162 In this report the word “victim” is used to mean both the individuals who were the direct victim of a crime and their families, such as the family of someone who was murdered.
163 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, Northfield, Illinois, April 26, 2007, and September 27, 2007. Bishop-Jenkins is a frequent public speaker and activist. She serves on the boards of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Murder Victim Families for Human Rights. She is the National Program Director for Victims and Survivors for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
164 All of the victims interviewed for this report are an activists working on issues such as victims’ rights, anti-violence efforts in communities and schools, youth mentoring, and criminal justice reform.
165 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Bill Pelke, Anchorage, Alaska, September 27, 2007. Pelke is an anti-death penalty activist and writes and speaks on the importance of compassion. He co-founded the organization, Journey of Hope…from Violence to Healing. The organization is led by murder victim family members who oppose the death penalty.
167 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Azim Khamisa, La Jolla, California, October 3, 2007. Khamisa founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, (TKF) an organization named for his son. TKF works with children across the country on issues such as gangs, violence, revenge, and the importance of becoming peacemakers.
169 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Maggie Elvey, Sacramento, California, October 4, 2007. Elvey has been a victims’ rights advocate for 14 years. She speaks to community groups, high school students, criminal justice college classes, and youth at the California Department of Juvenile Justice facilities. Elvey is a member of the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, a victims’ rights group in California, and currently works for Crime Victims United.
171 Julia Reynolds, “Life with Parole Means Life: Chances of release dismal,” The Monterey Herald, October 8, 2007. Rather than speaking more generally about life without parole for juveniles, Ward was speaking against the release of a 19-year-old man sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for a murder that occurred in 1979. By 2007 he had served 28 years. Despite an exemplary prison record with no prison behavior write-ups since 1987, self-improvement efforts, family and community support, and the person who prosecuted his case urging release, the parole board denied his parole again in May 2007.
172 Human Rights Watch telephone interviews with Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, Northfield, Illinois, April 26, 2007, and September 27, 2007.
173 Human Rights Watch interviews with Melanie Washington, Long Beach, California, August 13, 2007, and October 9, 2007. Washington founded a community outreach program, Mentoring A Touch From Above, which works with youth who are incarcerated. She is the recipient of the Points of Light 2001 Presidential Community Service Award.
175 California Penal Code §190(e).
176 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Bill Pelke, Anchorage, Alaska, September 27, 2007.
Excerpt from the Human Rights Watch report, When I Die, They’ll Send Me Home: Youth Sentenced to Life without Parole in California, January 2008.