Life without parole is retribution

By: Mary Ellen Johnson

hose of us fighting to abolish the death penalty will likely find, if we succeed, that capital punishment is replaced with life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentences. What do abolitionists have to say about this sentence?

Mary Ellen Johnson is executive director of the Pendulum Foundation (, kids serving kids serving life. We invited her to submit an article on this subject.

America is the only nation on earth that imprisons its children for life. Well, let me clarify that: a handful of other countries may house a handful of juveniles.

America has proudly consigned approximately 2,300 of its progeny to life in prison without possibility of parole (LWOP).

Who are these “monsters?”

According to Human Rights Watch, 16 percent were 15 or younger when they committed their crimes. Fifty-nine percent received life for their first offense. Twenty percent were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time and were convicted of that prosecutorial favorite, felony murder, which broadens the crime of murder in various ways.

In Colorado, where I am executive director of the Pendulum Foundation, I tell all who will listen that we have a Black 16-year-old serving life for a hit-and-run. We have two kids forever imprisoned for killing their abusive parents. Both of these boys committed these crimes after their school, law enforcement and social services declined to intervene—even though they were all well aware of the abuse these boys were suffering.

I add that Colorado children often get harsher sentences than their adult counterparts, and use those two abused kids, Jacob Ind and Nathan Ybanez, as examples. While Jacob and Nathan got LWOP for killing their parents, the situation is very different when an adult kills a parent. For example, a 38-year-old convicted of killing his father received a 16-year sentence. He will be eligible for parole in five years.

Jacob Ind has a parole date of around 3024. Nathan Ybanez’s sentence is similar.

Why? Does any of this make sense?

Of course it does—so long as you realize America’s dirty little secret: We don’t care about our children.

I became aware of this disturbing truth in 1992, when 15-year-old Jacob Ind came into my life. I was an ordinary mom of three children, living in a lovely mountain town. A writer of historical novels, I lived a totally ordinary life. Until destiny came knocking.

In the weeks leading up to December 17, 1992, when Jacob killed his mother and stepfather, my preppie daughter had mentioned this unusual kid in her geometry class. She liked him, but he was weird, principally because he dressed like a hippie. She’d also noticed that he’d recently lost a lot of weight, that he wasn’t bathing, that he seemed “spacey.”

An adult might wonder whether Jacob was depressed, particularly since he’d been asking fellow students if he could come and live with them, and/or whether they would help him kill his parents.

School authorities ignored all warning signs—even after one of Jacob’s friends implored the principal to do something because “Jacob Ind is going to kill his parents.”

Following the gruesome killings, through either a series of coincidences or divinely inspired events—depending on your perspective—I ended up working for Jacob’s defense.

Of course, Jacob was convicted (and not only because he had a housewife as the principal investigator!). What I didn’t realize until much later was that the minute Jacob was charged as an adult, he was doomed.

In Colorado, as in 14 other states, we have a statute called direct file, meaning district attorneys have total power to “directly file” a kid in adult court. No transfer hearing. No paper trail. No asking, “Why?”

Most of our approximately 50 juvenile LWOPs were involved in high-profile crimes. So you get headlines. In the first few days following the tragedy, the juvenile is inevitably crucified in the media. Any future jury pool is tainted.

In addition, the DA knows that as soon as he makes the decision to direct file the juvenile, that child will spend the rest of his life behind bars. With a 90 percent conviction rate, a guilty verdict isn’t even a crapshoot. Best of all, the prosecutor will be able to prominently use the kid’s mug shot during his reelection campaign.

That’s what happened in Jacob’s case. That’s what happens in many of them.

Following Jacob’s trial, one juror said, “If it were up to me, Jacob Ind would have gotten the death penalty.” But other jurors expressed horror that his conviction meant a mandatory life sentence. They had no idea. In Colorado, jurors aren’t allowed to know the consequences of their verdicts. Two jurors were so troubled by this sentence that they needed to be treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Luckily, the state of Colorado had already abolished juvenile executions.

Would Jacob have preferred death? How are these kids handling life in prison?

I know there is a debate out there about substituting LWOP for the death penalty. Is that a positive step? Some of our kids have settled in, meaning they’ve given up. Others say they would have preferred death. A lifetime of hell? A lifetime without programs? A lifetime of hopelessness?

Growing up in prison is difficult. Rapes and beatings are commonplace. Worst of all, these kids, once they reach the age of 25 or so, seem to emerge from a deep sleep (the scientific term is “growing up”). And when asked about the crime they were convicted of, “What were you thinking?” they all respond, “I wasn’t.”

They are forever tormented by their actions, not to mention the lives they could have lived—and never will.

As my friend Jacob recently said, with his head in his hands, “I don’t think I can handle 50 more years of this.”

In 2006, the Pendulum Foundation helped pass a bill lowering LWOP for juveniles to 40 years before parole. We wanted much less time, plus retroactivity. While disappointed, supporters told us, “This is the first sentence reduction in 20 years. You’ll get there in increments.”

I am haunted by an earlier bill in which we tried for 27 years with retroactivity. Prosecutors offered us 40. We refused. Had we taken that offer, I have no doubt our current young LWOPs would now be down to half that time.

During the past several years, we’ve learned a lot about “politics.” First of all, some legislators are very uncomfortable sentencing a child to life. Others look for any reason to justify LWOP. “I don’t believe he was even abused.” “He was a gangbanger.” “What was he doing out late at night?” (This refers to our Black teen involved in the hit-and-run).

Still others throw out that nonsensical bromide, “If they’re old enough to do the crime, they’re old enough to do the time.”

As consistently as summer follows spring, prosecutors drag victims’ families to hearings to retry the cases. At the 2006 hearing, victim after victim testified. The pain was palpable. One grandfather, whose grandson had been killed in an accidental shooting—or murder, depending on whose version is being told—said, “Please don’t ever let my grandson’s murderer out. I cry myself to sleep every night.”

The truth is: No amount of prison time can ever bring back a life. So that’s not even a relevant argument. I believe we have to dig deeper. I believe we have to ask one simple question, “Do we as a nation believe in redemption or retribution?”

If we are a Christian country, as many assert, then we are ignoring Jesus Christ’s teachings. The death penalty is retribution. Life without parole is retribution. Life for children is retribution. Life in prison without programs is retribution. Life in prison with rape is retribution. Life in prison locked away for years in control units—as are half of our teens—is retribution.

Until we reframe the dialogue and talk of solutions that are built around redemption rather than punishment, we will remain sick as a nation. Victims’ families are not really seeking life in prison. They are seeking peace of mind and heart.

We have to start asking hard questions: Why are most of the kids serving life minorities? Why are most of them poor? Why is the majority mentally ill? Why do we incarcerate more people than any other nation, and yet remain among the most violent? Why do we demand that children be held fully accountable for their actions, when we never ask that of the rich and powerful?

We as a society have created these children. Just because we say we are a generous and caring nation doesn’t mean we are. Just because we say we have the greatest justice system in the world doesn’t make it so. Just because we say prisoners get a fair trial doesn’t mean they do. Just because we say long prison sentences deter violence doesn’t mean that’s true. Just because we say the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst doesn’t mean it is.

All it really says is that we as a nation have lost our moral compass—and that unless we transform all aspects of our justice system, we’re in danger of losing our soul.

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