Skip to main content

Time to deal on life sentences for kids

By Jeanne Bishop and Mark Osler, Special to CNN
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Fri July 6, 2012
The Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot give juvenile offenders life without parole as a mandatory sentence.
The Supreme Court has ruled that states cannot give juvenile offenders life without parole as a mandatory sentence.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeanne Bishop, Mark Osler: Court ruling on mandatory sentences for juveniles fraught
  • They say people have long been divided on issue: whether to show mercy or demand justice
  • Court forcing discussion of how to decide which kids should be released and when, they say
  • Writers: It's time for both sides to set aside conflict, bring best people to table, move forward

Editor's note: Jeanne Bishop is a criminal defense lawyer in Cook County, Illinois, and a survivor of family members murdered by a juvenile. Mark Osler is a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and a former federal prosecutor.

(CNN) -- Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot give juvenile offenders life without parole as a mandatory sentence. The 5-4 decision in Miller v. Alabama raised some hard questions. Many states now have to both address past sentences under mandatory schemes and come up with a new rule for future sentences.

Outside the court, in the real world, this decision presents for many a difficult moment on a fraught issue, one we have both been engaged with -- each for our own reasons -- for years. We each represent different sides of the juvenile life-without-parole debate, a conflict that has long raged among legal organizations, family groups and others.

Mark, a former prosecutor and law professor, has argued that juvenile murderers are different from others sentenced to life terms because they are unformed children at the time of the killing. In the same way that we treat children differently in many other areas because they are still developing, he believes there should be some chance for rehabilitation allowed in every juvenile case. He represents the view of many criminal law professionals who seek consistency with other areas of law: He seeks mercy.

Jeanne Bishop
Jeanne Bishop

In contrast, Jeanne, a criminal defense attorney, believes that some juveniles convicted of murder deserve life without parole. Her belief comes in part through personal experience: In 1990, a 16-year-old named David Biro killed her pregnant sister, Nancy Bishop Langert, and her husband, Richard Langert, in their townhouse in Winnetka, Illinois. He broke into her loved ones' home only to kill them; he took nothing. In advocating on this issue, she has stood with those who love someone who was killed by a juvenile -- a group that bears the pain of a thousand social failures. She seeks justice.

Mark Osler
Mark Osler

The Supreme Court has now come down on Mark's side, at least in cases where the sentence of life without parole was mandatory. (About 80% of the 2,500 inmates who are serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles were sentenced under mandatory sentencing systems, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.) Now the question is what an alternative to juvenile life without parole should look like, particularly in states without adult parole or with restricted adult parole.

It's tricky, emotional terrain, but we must now go there. And it will not be easy. Too often, the discussion surrounding the issue has been strident. Victims' groups, such as the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, have depicted some advocates for juveniles as callous to the trauma of victims. Some opponents of juvenile life sentences, such as Mary Ellen Johnson of the Pendulum Foundation, have characterized life without parole as pure retribution.

Neither side has made much effort to find a middle ground between justice and mercy. We need a new model, one that provides a meaningful opportunity for juveniles who have served an appropriate amount of time for taking a human life to seek release, while at the same time weighing public safety and ensuring that the voices of victims' families are sought out and heard.

And now that the Supreme Court has forced our hand, we call on those who have opposed one another to come together and talk. The important questions are not the ones behind us, but the ones in front: Who gets to decide on releasing these convicts, and when?

What notification and resources, if any, should be provided to victims' family members whose loved ones were murdered by a juvenile? How often and under what conditions should a murderer who was a juvenile at the time of his crime be able to seek release?

What should inform the decision of whether to release him?

The range of factors in making such a decision is vast: It could include observations about the juvenile made by guards and social workers in correctional facilities who come into contact with him every day; input from childhood teachers, neighbors and family members; psychological and medical information; anything that would shed light on future dangerousness.

We need at the table experts in child psychology and brain development, prison staff, counselors, academics, murder victims' family members -- all important voices that have too often been left out of the process.

Other reforms should include eliminating mandatory transfers of defendants from juvenile to adult courts and shifting funds from incarceration to crime prevention programs and victims' services.

As the Supreme Court's decision reflected, juvenile life without parole strikes to the core of key definitional issues for our society: the meaning of childhood, the role of rehabilitation and redemption in criminal law, and the searing pain caused by senseless murders.

These issues have been important enough to divide us; now that the Supreme Court has ruled, they should unite us.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeanne Bishop and Mark Osler.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT