Debating Life without Parole for Young People

Debating Life without Parole for Young People
Marshan Terrell Allen
Debating Life without Parole for Young People
Marshan Terrell Allen

Debating Life without Parole for Young People

Until two years ago, young people in the United States could be sentenced to death for their crimes. Then the U. S. Supreme Court said such drastic sentences didn’t square with the constitution. But young people who are involved in very serious crimes can still get the next most severe sentence: life in prison without any chance of parole. In Illinois, that can mean kids as young as 13.

Linda Paul reports on an emerging debate over whether life without parole sentences are appropriate for juveniles.

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Two years ago the organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued a report about ‘Life Without Parole’ sentences for juveniles. Allison Parker of ‘Human Rights Watch’ says just four countries use the sentence…

PARKER: One of those countries is the United States and there are 3 others.. They are Tanzania, Israel and South Africa.

But here’s the part that’s may be even more surprising…..

PARKER: And what we found is that in those 3 countries there are twelve youth offenders, people below the age of 18 at the time of crimes, serving life without parole sentences.. In the United States, we estimate there are 2, 270…

Twleve across the globe… And 2, 270 in the United States alone… Here in Illinois there are 103 juveniles in prison for life without a chance for parole.. Many of them are grown now. Marshan Terrell Allen is one of them….

Ambi: DOOR SLAMS…ELECTRONIC NOISE..VOICE SAYS: “one comin’ in” >

To meet me in a plain, cinderblock conference room, Allen must first pass through a series of heavy metal doors. He’s accompanied by an armed corrections officer …

Ambi: KEYS RATTLE IN A LOCK - Allen. Come with me… Step right through here…

Marshan Allen is a shy, soft spoken man. He’s big on reading — just finished ‘The Kite Runner,’ which he loved… and every month he devours Oprah Winfrey’s self-help magazine “O” …

During his 15 years in prison, he’s kept busy.. earned a GED, a paralegal certificate .. He helped lots of other prisoners while he worked as a clerk at Stateville’s law library.

At 31 he’s slender and youthful looking . But at the time of his crime

ALLEN: I was 15 years old

Back then he got little supervision from his mother, who wasn’t around much and supported the family through public assistance. Allen spent a lot of time with an older brother he idolized. That brother acted as an affectionate caretaker, but also introduced Allen to dealing drugs. When his big brother asked him to steal a van and accompany some acquaintances to retrieve stolen drugs and drug money, Allen says he didn’t hesitate:

ALLEN: It was stupid to steal the van, to go along with ‘em.. To this day, I don’t even know why I went.. was no purpose for me to go there.. But when they were getting ready to leave, they said, ” C’mon…. let’s go” … and I left, without questioning..

Allen says he had no idea that several people would be killed. One of the victims turned out to be a friend of his from high school, who had nothing to do with the drugs stolen from Allen’s brother.

At the trial, no one accused Allen of being one of the triggermen. But under Illinois law, you can be held accountable for a murder if you were a look-out, for instance, or drove the getaway car…

And when there’s more than one murder victim, the law requires a sentence of life without any chance of parole for anyone 15 or older. And it’s possible to get “life without parole” as young as 13 in Illinois. The judge in this case is on record as saying if had had any legal choice, he would have given Allen a lighter sentence…

ALLEN: So he didn’t have a choice but to sentence me to natural life without parole. But he didn’t.. he didn’t want to do it. And during my trial he was very nice to me… He was offering me — when I come to the courtroom he would offer me candy, tootsy rolls… And one time during my trial he asked me did I want a apple?.. And I told him I was alright.. & he said, ” do you want some chips?” & I said “yeah”… and he got up & went to his chambers & got me a bag of chips AND a pop & brought it out to me in the courtroom…

Of course not all juveniles sentenced to life without parole have stories as sympathetic as that of Marshan Allen….

FASSAL: And there are some … I can tell u right off the bat… who are — probably did show a very well formed intent to kill.

Shaena Fassal is an attorney with the John Howard Association… a prison watchdog group. A few months ago John Howard supported legislation in Springfield that would have provided — after 20 years imprisonment— the possibility of yearly parole hearings to juveniles who had been sentenced to “life without parole”…

Cases that weren’t worthy of a parole hearing would be weeded out. . Again, Shaena Fassal …

FASSAL: So it’s not like this is a “get outta jail free card” where we’re advocating for everybody should just be let free cuz they’re kids… But we’re recognizing that kids DO have rehabilitative potential and that they should have an opportunity to come before a board that can evaluate that & then make a determination as to whether or not they’d be a threat to public safety, & whether or not they have rehabilitated themselves in a way that’s safe for everybody…

But the legislation didn’t fly.

The bill’s sponsor, Representative Robert Molaro, met with victims rights advocates who told him that even the possibility of a yearly review is too painful for families of murder victims to bear…

BISHOP-JENKINS: The very idea that there’s this constant uncertainty in the family’s lives. That for the rest of their lives they’re gonna hafto wonder, is this the year we’re gonna hafto fight it again.. Oh, here it comes. January of this year I’ve gotto start thinking about this killer again.. I’ve gotto start writing letters.. I’ve gotto start organizing a campaign to keep him in prison.. This is a NIGHTMARE for victim’s families..

Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins knows that nightmare very well. In 1990 her sister Nancy and brother-in-law, Richard, were brutally murdered by a neighbor who was 16 years old. He was a straight “A” student and had methodically planned the murder for months. When Nancy begged for the life of her unborn child, Jennifer says, she folded her arms across her abdomen, and the killer shot directly into her belly and left her there to die. She only had time to drag herself over to her dead husband’s body and draw in his blood the symbol of a heart and the word ” you” — love you ….

BISHOP-JENKINS: This is my dad. He’s the one who found them. Never was the same after that…

Bishop-Jenkins is showing me a gallery of family photographs in her mother’s lovely North Shore home. The very home where the murder took place …

BISHOP-JENKINS: This is Nancy when she was 16. She was soooo beautiful. She played the lead in ‘West Side Story’ at New Trier high school in her senior year.. She played ‘Maria’ in West Side Story … She could sing like a bird.. she was so beautiful and she was a really good actress..

Bishop Jenkins opposes the death sentence but believes that her sister’s killer got the correct sentence- life without parole. But she also acknowledges that some juveniles may have been given that sentence unjustly. So what she supports is a one-time review. Include victims’ families in the process, and separate out cases that are clear concerns, she says…

BISHIOP-JENKINS: And then going forward if the State of Illinois wants to abolish the LWOP sentence for juveniles, than that’s fine… They can do that. But they hafto treat the ones that they’ve been given, very differently, cuz there are victim’s families out there who’ve already built their lives on the certainty of the LWOP sentence….

It’s a complicated issue. Human Rights Watch agrees it’s crucial that the needs of victims’ families be taken into account. But they say a one- time review won’t work. Because that leaves out the people who reform and turn around their lives beyond that point. Again, Allison Parker of Human Rights Watch..

PARKER: The review needs to be periodic.. That’s what human rights standards require. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean once every year.. maybe not even once every 5 years.. but there needs to be more than just a “one-off ” review..

And so the jostling goes - back and forth. New legislation on this issue hasn’t gained much traction yet in Illinois. But there’s other movement. A group of people from a range of organizations is traveling around Illinois right now. They’re interviewing the 103 people sentenced to life without parole while they were still juveniles. The stories they gather will likely form the basis of a statewide debate on whether any of those prisoners should eve have a chance to make their case for parole.

For Chicago Public Radio, this is Linda Paul.