If You’re Sentenced to Life as a Juvenile, What Does It Take to Get Parole?

The law, lawyers, and the court.
June 11 2014 12:16 PM

“Where Do You Think That Rage Came From?”

To get parole, people sentenced to life as juveniles must reckon with their pasts.

Joseph Donovan.
Joseph Donovan sits before the Massachusetts Parole Board during a hearing on May 29, 2014. Donovan's case is one of the first to be re-examined after a 2012 Supreme Court ruling on sentencing juveniles.

Courtesy of the Joe Donovan Project

Last week, the Massachusetts Parole Board announced that Frederick Christian might go home. He would be one of the first people to be released based on the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling, in Miller v. Alabama, finding mandatory life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional.

Christian was 17 when he was involved in a drug robbery that ended with the shooting deaths of two men. Now he is 37. In prison, he got his GED, enrolled in violence prevention programs, and converted to Islam. The five-times-a-day prayers, he said, “taught me discipline.” He has maintained a steady job cleaning the prison, gone regularly to Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and helped to grow vegetables for the homeless.

Across the country, some 2,500 people are serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. Some have already served 30 years or more. Yet it’s likely few of them will get out. Before he can be paroled, Christian still has to complete a behavior modification program and live for a year in a minimum security prison. And his hearing is one of only a handful like it around the country since Miller. The Supreme Court said that the young people’s capacity to mature and change entitle them to a second chance. But lower courts, legislatures, and parole boards have more incentive to maintain the status quo than to show mercy—to follow the letter of Miller but not its spirit.

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That’s because letting more prisoners like Christian go free requires a return to an idea that the country largely abandoned a generation ago: that criminals can be rehabilitated, and there is a limit to just retribution. As costs rise for the growing prison population, legislators from every corner of the political map are now calling for a softening of sentencing laws. But legislation about the future is one thing. Giving a second chance to people who have already been sentenced for doing terrible things is another.

Christian was convicted in 1998 of two counts of first-degree murder. At the time of his crime, he was a drug dealer. He and two friends planned to rob three other dealers. But one of his friends shot the other men, killing two and wounding the third. Christian says (and the evidence suggests) he had no idea his friend meant to shoot the dealers. He didn’t hurt anyone himself. Still, he was convicted under the felony murder rule, which says all participants in a crime that ends in someone’s death can be treated as equally culpable. His sentence was mandatory: life without parole.

In Miller, the Supreme Court said sentencing judges must have discretion to consider mercy for juveniles facing life sentences. Before imposing life without parole, a judge must consider factors that set teenage criminals apart from their adult counterparts: immaturity, susceptibility to peer pressure, limited control over their home environments, and difficulty evaluating risks or appreciating consequences.

But the court left open the question of what to do with the juvenile lifers like Christian, now adults, who were sentenced before Miller. Several states, including Louisiana, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania, which collectively house almost half of the nation’s juvenile lifers, have said Miller is not retroactive: It only applies to new cases.

Even in states in which courts are reviewing old cases in light of Miller, they’re often leaving the defendants in prison for life. This month in Iowa, a judge heard from 33-year-old Romeo Hardin, who was 15 when he shot 21-year-old Augustus Nance in a gang initiation rite. After considering what he called Hardin’s “pathetic” childhood, filled with violence and neglect, the judge again sentenced him to life without parole. The same judge resentenced another juvenile lifer, Christine Lockheart—who was convicted of first-degree murder after waiting in the car while her boyfriend robbed and stabbed a neighbor—to life with the possibility of parole. In Michigan, a judge recently resentenced one person sentenced to life without parole, for a murder and carjacking at 16, to the same penalty. He resentenced another man, who was 14 when he shot and robbed an elderly woman, to 40 to 60 years. “Some people—let me emphasize, some people—need a second chance,” the judge said.

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