A decision came down from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court last month holding that juveniles may not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. As a result, a slate of prisoners who were teenagers when they committed murder will now become eligible for parole, provided they have already served the minimum fifteen years. When I was 12, a 16 year old boy a few towns from us beat a 15 year old girl to death with a baseball bat. I remember the case for the same reasons most people in our area did; it was a small town, and a horrendous crime committed in an upstairs room of a benign looking suburban home. No one ever thought it would happen here. But of course, it sometimes does.
The boy who killed the girl was sentenced to life without parole and entered prison never to be seen or heard from again. Now, he may be after all. Since I grew up in the county where this crime occurred, my friends and relatives have been signing petitions opposing even the consideration of parole, decrying the SJC’s decision and expressing their sorrow for the girl’s family, and their continued rage at the boy, now a man of 36. Some friends of friends know the girl’s family and their outcry has been that much louder. I, for one, am pleased by this decision, as it represents for me a step along the path toward a more enlightened and humane justice system. The decisions also gave a nod to the ever-increasing body of evidence that teenage brains are not like adult brains, a fact most of us have long suspected. After all, the anthem of anyone parenting a teenager typically runs something like, “What were you thinking?” They bewilder and confound us because we very genuinely cannot relate to their profound lack of judgment, their irrational feelings of invincibility, and their seeming incapacity to consider consequences.
When I look at the deep anger and outrage that has met this court decision and its impact on this particular murder case, I find myself genuinely bewildered at its intensity. The criticisms fall into three categories: this crime was so awful that the only appropriate punishment is keeping him penned up forever; the girl’s family shouldn’t have to think of him walking the streets as a free man when she’s dead; only someone depraved beyond all recovery could be capable of this kind of act.
In fact, that last one goes to the heart of the SJC’s decision; life without parole is a punishment given to those who are deemed “irretrievably depraved,” incapable, in other words, of ever being rehabilitated and regaining a place in society. I’m not a lawyer, but I have, over time, picked up the few scraps of legal education that my lawyer husband drops around the house, and he has taught me (“Criminal Justice 101,” he says) that sentencing criminals serves three purposes: deterrence, retribution, and rehabilitation. That first, when applied to teenage brains, seems of dubious value. A sixteen year old will dive from a trestle bridge into shallow water because he has a poor grasp on his own mortality, let alone on mandatory minimum sentencing. The second, retribution, is not, in fact, so much about justice for the victim’s family, but about a more impersonal kind of justice exacted for society. Were it your own murdered daughter, you might fantasize about torture, castration, and publicly stoning the murderer. Yet we do not turn over murderers to the murdered’s family. We don’t let them anywhere near the jury. We leave the retribution to an impartial party. In the case of a homeless drifter murdered, with no known family or friends, society would seek its retribution for his murder just the same. For a family bereft, no punishment would be sufficient. But society judges what it is due differently.
Finally, the last of the three: rehabilitation. I have seen several comments and posts about the boy who killed the girl saying he was and is evil, that he was always corrupted, lacking a soul, or morality, or whatever might have kept him from this act. I reject the existence of evil generally, insofar as “evil” is considered to be some mysterious separate force that infests a person’s soul and drives them to do things. But what worries me most about these posts is what they signify. To turn our backs on a sixteen year old boy who did such a thing means we reject childhood. It means we believe a sixteen year old boy is fixed, no longer malleable, his nature set and unchanging. I know we don’t believe this. A sixteen year old boy sent to war would be a child soldier. A sixteen year old boy is judged marginally able to drive a car. A sixteen year old boy is not judged capable of living on his own. A sixteen year old boy is a boy until he kills someone, and then suddenly we call him a man.
Some of the people who have joined their voices to the opposition to this man’s possible parole have teenage daughters of their own, which complicates things. When a parent can see her own child’s face in the victim, it becomes their own, vicarious trauma. When a classroom full of children the same age as my elder son were shot to death, it affected me as I had not imagined anything ever could. I appreciate that I cannot see the world through the eyes of a mother of daughters. The packet of fears that is slipped under the blankets with a baby girl going home from the hospital is different from the one slipped in with a boy. There are things that lurk in the dark for the parents of girls that will never lurk in the dark for me.
All parents fear the phone call that comes in the middle of the night, or the policeman on the doorstep. For parents of girls, it’s the abduction, the rape, the rage-blind boyfriend who finally did it. But for the parents of boys, it’s different. I am raising two boys, so I peer into the dark for the perpetrators. The murderers, the batterers, the rapists, the school shooters. People like to say that it won’t happen to me, that mine are good boys, that they’d never be capable. It’s true that they are good boys right now, at 6 and 4. But I read the stories of the perpetrators with a mother’s zeal, and I am not naive. I have read too many aftermath interviews with bewildered family or neighbors that say, “He was a nice boy,” “I never imagined,” “I didn’t know he was feeling this way.” I will work tirelessly to keep my boys good, to teach them to be gentle and kind. But some boys go awry, and if mine ever should, I would plead with this society for their humane treatment. Not to evade consequences, but merely to be treated with compassion, and not be stripped of their humanity along with their freedom.
A sixteen year old boy is not complete yet, and so, by definition, he cannot be “irretrievably depraved.” It is fitting that my last post was about my good Catholic grandmother; she would always counsel rehabilitation, a second chance, mercy. There will be criminals who cannot be salvaged, and who can never be released. This boy, now turned man, may be one of those. So be it. Don’t let him out, in that case. But to throw away the key at sixteen is something only a bleak and hopeless society would do. I don’t believe we are one. We can choose to be humane, and just, and all the things these men did not choose when they were boys. Mercy is not an expression of weakness or naiveté. Mercy is the luxury possessed by those with power over the powerless. In those moments, when one wields power over another, whether with a baseball bat, or the keys to a prison cell, we would, at our best, always counsel mercy. It isn’t weak, and it isn’t easy, but it is human, or, at least, it can be, if we choose it.