This fall the Supreme Court will hear two cases from Florida challenging a state’s ability to sentence violent juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole. Long unquestioned, life without parole for the very worst juvenile offenders only recently came under fire after Justice Anthony M. Kennedy reasoned in the majority opinion in Roper v Simmons that since teenagers are susceptible to negative influences, including peer pressure, capital punishment violated their 8th Amendment rights. Leftist activists have seized on this language, and are mounting a coordinated misinformation campaign to expand Roper’s juvenile death penalty ban to life without parole sentences.
At the heart of this campaign are self-published “studies” containing highly questionable assertions and gross misrepresentation of facts. For example, the Equal Justice Initiative’s 2007 report spotlights the case of Ashley Jones as a case of injustice that cries out for reform. This is how EJI describes the facts of Jones’s case: “At 14, Ashley tried to escape the violence and abuse by running away with an older boyfriend who shot and killed her grandfather and aunt. Her grandmother and sister who were injured during the offense, want Ashley to come home.” Those are the “facts” according to leftist activists. Now here is just a portion of the judge’s actual finding of facts in the case (warning this is not for the faint of heart):
When Ashley realized her aunt was still breathing, she hit her in the head with a heater, stabbed her in the chest and attempted to set her room on fire. … As ten-year old Mary Jones [Ashley’s sister] attempted to run, Ashley grabbed her and began hitting her. [Ashley’s boyfriend] put the gun in young Mary’s face and told her that that was how she would die. Ashley intervened and said, “No, let me do it,” and proceeded to stab her little sister fourteen times.
The whole story gets much, much worse. And Ashley Jones is just the tip of the left’s misinformation iceberg. In 2007 and again in 2009, the left tried to outlaw juvenile life without parole in the California legislature. Both bills’ official analyses claimed that “59% of youth sentenced to LWOP are first-time offenders” and that “45% of the youth sentenced to life in prison did not perform the murder they were convicted of.” Neither bill provides any sources for or explanation of these assertions. The bills also state that “70% of the youth acted under the influence of adults” and that, “in 56% of these cases, the youth received a higher sentence than the adults.”
Again there is no factual basis for these numbers. The bill further claims that “[t]he U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences kids to life without parole.” This is simply false. As even Amnesty International and Human Rights First acknowledge, at least 11 other countries allow life without parole for juvenile offenders.
To combat the left’s false and misleading campaign, Heritage Foundation legal scholars Charles Stimson and Andrew Grossman have published a 90 page report (pdf) providing reliable facts and analysis, as well as detailed case studies, all with full citations to primary sources. Stimson and Grossman write:
It is our hope that judges and legislators will approach the issue of life without parole for juvenile offenders with both an open mind and skepticism about much of what has been written on the topic, probing and challenging the facts and propositions put to them to ensure that they are relying on the most accurate facts and strongest arguments.
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