The U.S. is the only nation that sentences young people to life in prison. More than 11,000 individuals are serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles, and approximately 2,100 of them are condemned to remain behind bars without the possibility of parole, according to the most recent data cited by The Sentencing Project.
But since 2012, those “permanent lifers” have been given the chance of a reprieve, thanks to the watershed Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama that life sentences without parole for individuals who committed murder as adolescents were unconstitutional.
One of the assumptions of that decision was that juveniles found guilty of even the most heinous crimes deserved a second chance, because the scientific evidence showed adolescent brains were too immature to discern right from wrong. Was it justified?
According to developmental psychologist James Garbarino, Ph.D., it was.
In 2012, he began examining over 50 cases of individuals who took advantage of the ruling to apply for parole—a number that has since increased to over 100.
His 2018 book, Miller’s Children: Why Giving Teenage Killers a Second Chance Matters for All of Us, captured national attention with his conclusion that the individuals targeted by the Miller ruling had earned the right to be considered for release, thanks to their successful efforts to rehabilitate themselves inside prison. As efforts to apply the ruling to juveniles sentenced before 2012, thanks to a 2016 Court decision, have gained traction, his conclusions continue to have special relevance.
The Crime Report sat down recently with Garbarino, who holds the Maude C. Clarke Chair in Humanistic Psychology at Loyola University, to discuss the reaction he has received since his book was published, how he has followed up his conclusions by advocating for individuals as an expert court witness, and why the Miller ruling was an important step in the ongoing debate over the possibility of redemption for those condemned to live out the rest of their lives behind bars.
The transcript has been condensed and slightly edited for clarity.
The Crime Report: What motivated you to tell this story?
James Garbarino, Ph.D.: As I began work on these cases and focused on the first 50 of them— now the number is double that—I was really struck by [the reasons I felt] to be optimistic. These individuals had essentially been written off as evil monsters, as incorrigible. What was really striking and inspiring was how many of them had found a way to not just rehabilitate themselves—but to transform themselves. I was really inspired by what they had done in incredibly difficult situations and I wanted to tell that story as a kind of follow up to my 2015 book, Listening to Killers.
TCR: Some critics argue that teenage killers should be more accountable for their actions simply because of their age.
Garbarino: There certainly have been cases where the defendant’s age has been held against him, as opposed to what the Supreme Court said should be used as a mitigating factor on their behalf. This is an old argument that is often summarized as, “If you can do the crime, you can do the time.” It’s a very naïve and a very inadequate understanding, because you could make the case that there are five-year-olds who are physically cable of driving a car. You would say, “If you can drive a car, you can have a license.”
[But,] many people appreciate that youngsters typically don’t have the same capacity for understanding consequences or controlling emotions. And that’s essentially what the Supreme Court said in Miller v Alabama, that, in part because human brains don’t mature until their 20s, all teenagers, typically, are not playing with a full deck, and this disability affects their feelings in ways that are very relevant to understanding crimes they might commit— particularly homicides. So, the question is ultimately, should teenagers be held to the same standards as adults are?
I just don’t think it pulls out scientifically.
TCR: You write, “Forgiving leads to healing, and holding onto rage and anger leads to further suffering.” Do you mean it for the killer, the victim’s family, or the criminal justice system as a whole?
Garbarino: Well, in a sense, all three. For the killers themselves, it’s important that they come to a point, and it shouldn’t be easy and it shouldn’t be quick, it should be a long process that ultimately leads to them forgiving themselves for having been what they were and what they did as a basis for transforming into what they become. So that’s certainly significant.
The Supreme Court said that for the overwhelming majority of the cases, the presumption shouldn’t be that they’re dangerous. Many of these individuals are capable of rehabilitation and therefore, they should not be sentenced to life without parole. In many courtrooms, the burden of proof is clearly being put on the defendant, not on the prosecution. I often end up saying this when I testify that, “The Supreme Court said, ‘Only the very rarest of cases should get life without parole.'”
And I ask the prosecutor, “How many cases have you argued for life without parole? How can all of the cases be the very rarest of cases?” But the specific passage you quote is particularly aimed at the victim’s families—for two reasons. One, because I have seen how corrosive it can be to hold onto that rage and anger as opposed to getting to a point of forgiveness. Second, because prosecutors often feel that their behavior has to be dictated by the [victim’s] family’s behavior. There’s an old expression that says, “Revenge is a meal best served cold,” meaning that you should not get revenge in the heat of the moment, but you should take your time. The same is true for forgiveness.
TCR: In all your years advocating for the release of those teenagers who are now adults, what’s that biggest lesson that you’ve taken away?
Garbarino: You can’t predict much from looking at the crime a teenager commits, particularly murder, or what they can become after their brain matures and they have time to use that mature brain to rehabilitate and transformed themselves. People assume there’s a highly predictive value in analyzing crime, in fact, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of value on future predicting at all.
TCR: The subtitle of your book is, “Why Giving Teenage Killers a Second Chance Matters for All of Us.” Why does it matter?
Garbarino: I think it matters for a number of reasons. One: without [a second chance], it’s a waste of human resources. Some of these guys are in [prison] decade after decade. It matters because of the financial waste, and the waste these men feel because they can’t contribute to society. Also, it’s the message we send about who we are as a people. It has some significance for the development of others, and it may have some significance for our national character.
Now, judges will often say things like, “Well, I’m sentencing you to life without parole to send a message to other teenagers.” That’s kind of ludicrous. I’ve never really met a teenager that sits around reading legal reports.
It [also] matters because it sends a message to people that we care about you, no matter what you did, and we want to understand and nurture you despite what you did, and that there’s a pathway for you. One of the things I’m struck by is that all of these guys who got [life without parole] sentences had zero expectation of ever being released. So, from an external point of view they have zero motivation to do anything good. That’s why the fact that many of them make this choice, to live a different kind of life as a kind of penance for what they did, as an effort to restore the balance in the universe in a sense. That’s very inspiring! Some people just fall into utter despair and never recover. Some people just become aggressive and hedonistic. Other people say, “I’m going to savor every moment and live in the best moments I have.”
Some of these guys get to a point— usually not on day one or year one, sometimes it’s year 10— where they say, “All right, I’m alive. I have an existence. Even if I never leave this prison, how can I lead a positive, worthwhile life?” There’s a lesson there for all of us about how to go about living life.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR news intern.