The Lost Juvies

Youth offenders given sentences of life without the chance of parole may yet have a shot at release. But are we doing enough for them?

By Mary Ellen Johnson
Posted: 08/30/2009 01:00:00 AM MDT

“In America, we recycle our trash and throw away our children.”

Those words were spoken by a mother whose 16-year-old son is serving life in prison without possibility of parole. His sentence isn’t unusual. America is the only nation on earth that sentences its children to die behind bars.

We have thousands of throw-away children wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in prisons stretching from coast to coast. In 2006, Colorado became the first state to reverse that trend, by allowing parole after 40 years. It is a modest beginning.

In 2007, Gov. Bill Ritter created the nation’s first juvenile clemency board, which has been universally lauded. However, it is distressing that not a single juvenile has yet received a pardon or commutation. Still, by creating such a board, Ritter acknowledges that, from their brain development to their capacity for rehabilitation, children are different from adults. Theoretically, those who were convicted of crimes that occurred when they were 14, 15, 16 or 17 deserve a second look.

But political reality intrudes.

We all have different versions of right and wrong. It seems wrong that a kid gets sentenced to life for a hit-and-run that generally garners probation or a few years in prison for an adult. Or that a 38-year-old man receives 16 years in jail for setting his father on fire over a minor argument (the dad later died), while a 15-year-old who kills his molesters is put away for life. Yet other people looked at the same set of circumstances and had no trouble trying, convicting and incarcerating those cases.

I know several of these young prisoners and believe they can be rehabilitated. But Americans are a merciless people. We talk about redemption but we don’t practice it — certainly not for a young gang member who participates in a drive-by shooting or for a frightened teen who cleans up after his friend kills his abuser.

The facts are spun and re-spun on all sides. There is not much compassion, but a lot of hatred. And pesky political realities, such as: Where’s that 15-year-old’s constituency? Who will speak for him?

Who even cares?

If I were Gov. Ritter, would I ever give any of these kids a commutation or clemency? What’s in it politically for him — beyond our assertion that redemption should carry as great a moral weight as retribution?

We at the Pendulum Foundation believe we’ve found something that’s “in it” for everybody. We can give some of these kids a second chance plus promote public safety plus practice redemption and rehabilitation rather than retribution. Our solution?


Programs inside, and then more programs inside. Cognitive behavior therapy. Life skills. College. Right now, young inmates serving life without parole get few programs. However, the same bill that lowered life sentences also mandated that these young prisoners get the same opportunities for programs as those who are eligible for parole.

We think it’s important to provide them with a rainbow of proven programs. Not only will these (mostly privately funded) programs make those young inmates far better candidates for a commutation or clemency, all studies agree they also transform thinking and lives.

Once these offenders successfully complete all programs, we propose that they be given a conditional commutation or review. Inmates serving life without parole would then complete their re-integration into society via a privately funded rehabilitation center.

The entire process will take years. We don’t care. What we want to do is get them out of prison and firmly down the road to rehabilitation. Twenty years ago, when America was a different nation, these kids never got much prison time anyway. They received treatment, were rehabilitated and released back into society where most of them obeyed the laws, worked hard, paid their taxes, and disappeared into middle-class society.

We ask that some of our young inmates receive that same opportunity — an opportunity for a second chance.

We believe that it’s long past time when we recycle only our trash. It’s time we recycle our children, as well.

Mary Ellen Johnson is executive director of the Pendulum Foundation, a Denver-based juvenile-justice advocacy group.