Pennsylvania Leads the Nation in Juvenile Lifers

Even when charged with murder, young people should be given a chance to redeem themselves

Thanks to a recent spate of youth violence that has drawn national media attention and led to a rather tenuous standoff between Mayor Michael Nutter and the city’s black community, Philadelphia finds itself at the center of a debate over appropriate responses to juvenile crime as it tests new methods such as holding parents criminally liable for the indiscretions of their offspring.

Determining the best way to deal with minor offenders has consumed judges and lawmakers for decades; it’s been just five years since the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for offenders under 18 years of age, and theory and practice are still evolving.

Minors are psychologically incomplete human beings. According to social psychologist Erik Erikson—who literally wrote the book on personality development—adolescents have yet to develop a coherent concept of self or “ego identity” and therefore lack the sense of continuity that adults take for granted. The dark side of this fact is that young people are by nature impulsive and rarely take into full account the consequences of their actions. This can make them considerably more dangerous than adults. I’d rather be confronted by a 30-year-old with a gun than a 14-year-old with one. You can reason with a 30-year-old. Kids, on the other hand, are unpredictable, and their violence is typically senseless and unmitigated.

But should someone that isn’t even old enough to drive a car be legally considered so irredeemable that they should be locked away for the rest of their lives? That’s the question facing Lawrence County Judge Dominick Motto, who must decide whether Pennsylvania will gain the notorious distinction of prosecuting the world’s youngest prisoner facing life without parole.

The child in question, Jordan Brown, was just 11 when he allegedly committed the crime with which he is charged. And a brutal offense it most certainly was. In the early morning hours of February 20, 2009, prosecutors contend, Brown wrapped his child-sized 20-gauge shotgun (a recent Christmas gift) in a blanket, carried it to the bedroom where his father’s 26-year-old fiance Kenzie Marie Houk slept, and shot her in the back of the head, killing her and her unborn child. As authorities tell it, he then calmly boarded the bus for school where, by all accounts, he passed a typical morning until summoned by police.

Based on the testimony of Houk’s seven-year-old daughter, Brown was charged in adult court with a double homicide and taken to a 300-cell jail 45 miles from Pittsburgh, where officials didn’t even have clothes small enough to fit him. (He has since been moved to the Edmund L. Thomas juvenile detention center in Erie County.)

Earlier this year an appellate court ordered Judge Motto to reconsider the decision to try Brown as an adult due to certain improprieties committed by a prosecution expert. He is expected to rule on the decision by October.

If Brown is ultimately sentenced as an adult he will join thousands of other minor offenders across the U.S. languishing in prison for the rest of their lives for crimes they committed as kids. Many of them were convicted as accomplices to murders where they held no weapon and in some cases weren’t even present. Others are in for lesser crimes, like rape and kidnapping. (Last year, the nation’s highest court ruled that prosecutors can’t seek life without parole for minors charged with crimes other than murder.)

Pennsylvania currently leads the nation in the number of juvenile lifers, and accounts for nearly one-fifth of the U.S. total with more than 450 inmates doing life without parole for crimes they committed as minors. The problem, however, is not with Pennsylvania’s application of the law, it’s with the law itself.

Since the passage in 1972 of the State Juvenile Delinquency Act, children as young as 10 charged with murder are automatically tried as adults unless a judge takes the unusual step of moving the case into juvenile court. The burden of proof in such cases falls on the defense to show why a defendant should be tried as a juvenile (since, presumably, being one isn’t reason enough). Meanwhile the commonwealth is among a handful of states that imposes a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole for first- and second-degree murder.

Minus a juvenile homicide option, authorities in the Brown case had two choices: try Brown as a minor and risk his release when he is 21 (which would amount to a 10-year sentence for premeditated murder, assuming the boy is convicted) or try him as an adult and potentially put him away for life. There is simply no other option available under the law.

A handful of Pennsylvania legislators took up the issue in 2009, with House Bill 1999. The bill would have ended the practice of locking up minors and throwing away the key by requiring any person sentenced for murder prior to the age of 18 to come up for parole when they are 31, and every three years thereafter. That bill never made it out of committee, and the issue hasn’t been brought up again.

Brown’s guilt or innocence aside, the prospect of placing a boy who hadn’t even hit puberty when he committed his crime behind bars until the day he dies defies both logic and sensibility. The very reasons juveniles are more prone to act impulsively are very the ones that demand Brown be given the chance to one day prove himself redeemed. Can anyone one of us say we are the same person today we were when we were 11?

Granted, Brown’s crime, if he committed it, is heinous, and he should not get off lightly. But we also need to ask ourselves what it is we are trying to accomplish here. Like all people, Jordan Brown is going to grow up and become an adult. The responsibility for what kind of adult he becomes now rests squarely with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Unfortunately we live in a country that adheres to biblical notions of equity that still hold retribution and vengeance as tantamount to justice and find little merit in rehabilitation.

I say we need a middle ground in Pennsylvania that gives courts the discretion to mete out proper justice that fits the age of the offender. To that end lawmakers need to take up the the issues first addressed in House Bill 1999 once again as soon as possible.

Writer and photographer Christopher Moraff is a news features correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and a contributing writer for the Chicago-based magazines Design Bureau and In These Times, where he serves on the board of editors.