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Neuroscience

Should Kids Who’ve Killed Get a Second Chance?

Neuroscience supports revised sentencing but seems to diminish victims.

Key points

  • Juvenile killers with life sentences are seeking relief.
  • Neuroscience finds that the juvenile brain is immature, suggesting reduced culpability.
  • Victim advocates say sentencing relief for kids who’ve killed disrespects victims.
Illustration by K.Ramsland
Source: Illustration by K.Ramsland

Recently, Eric Smith was paroled after 28 years in prison. When he was 13 in 1993, he lured four-year-old Derrick Robie into the woods and beat him to death with a rock. Having been bullied, Eric admitted it had felt good "because—instead of me being hurt, I was hurting somebody else." He said he’d probably have killed again. After years of therapy, he now hopes to help other bullied kids. To the parole board, he said, “I'm not a threat. The 13-year-old kid that took [Derrick's] life…is not the man sitting in front of you talking…if you were to give me the chance, I would not only prove that I'm not a threat, I would definitely be an asset to society."

Yet, Smith took a life. Should we let him have a life? Many victim advocates and prosecutors insist that Smith’s second chance diminishes his victim. It lessens the gravity of his crime. Smith, they think, should pay for his act for the rest of his life. There’s no room in this stance for the findings of neuroscience that the immature adolescent brain is prone to poor judgment, with only a dim awareness of long-term consequences.

“In an adult,” wrote Stanford professor of biology and neurology Robert Sapolsky, “the frontal cortex steadies the activity of parts of the limbic system, a brain region involved in emotion; in contrast, in the teenage brain, the limbic system is already going at full speed, while the frontal cortex is still trying to make sense of the assembly instructions.”

This chaos can impact teenage perceptions, especially when adverse conditions create disadvantages. Risk factors for kids becoming killers include witnessing violence or substance abuse in their family, being inadequately supervised, having antisocial role models or peers, and being victims of assault. Temperament also plays a part: the more impulsive or reactive they are, the more emotions like anger and fear will guide their decisions. Yet as they mature, they tend to gain better control.

Punishment vs. second chance: There’s merit on both sides, but each challenges the other. Is there a tolerable compromise? Can we accept juvenile immaturity that lessens culpability while also exacting a price that gives justice to their victims? And shouldn’t it count when youthful offenders express genuine remorse – even horror – for their acts, and then work to improve themselves and benefit the lives of others?

In an interview last year, school shooter Kipland Kinkel discussed this issue. He described how difficult it’s been for him to escape the frozen-in-time stigma from his violent acts at age 15. In 1998 in Oregon, he fatally shot his parents and two students and wounded 25 others. Mentally unstable, he’d hoped the police would kill him. Instead, he was sent to prison for life. He feels “tremendous shame and guilt” for what he did. He’s avoided speaking publicly since then so as not to further traumatize his surviving victims. However, he dislikes being used as a symbol of incorrigible evil, with his former violence paraded in the press as the reason to block sentencing relief for other kids. He doesn’t want to be the reason they can’t get a second chance.

During mental health sessions behind bars, Kinkel learned to view himself as a kid who’d made mistakes rather than as an inherently evil person with no hope for change. But he’d had to understand and accept the part of himself that had caused such harm. With medication and support, he believes he’s made progress. The conditions that had sparked his violence, along with his reactive desperation, are in the past.

Since 2005, decisions about juvenile sentencing have acknowledged neuroscience research on the adolescent brain. Kids under 18 are being considered less culpable than adults for their antisocial acts. Hence, states are changing their laws and many cases are being reconsidered.

Apparently, this research influenced a parole board in Michigan, which voted to release Brent Koster after 48 years in prison. He was 15 when he’d participated as Danny Ranes’ accomplice in the rape and murder of three young women in 1972. In prison, he’d worked to improve himself via numerous rehab programs. He also earned a law degree.

"I know what I did,” he told the board. “I accept responsibility for that...If I had not met Danny Ranes, I know in my heart that I would have never become involved in crimes like this.” His age at the time was a factor in the decision.

“Beltway Sniper” Lee Boyd Malvo was a victim of one of the most dominating criminal role models. He recalls his experience with John Muhammad, the 41-year-old adult who exploited his vulnerability and directed – even commanded – his participation in nearly a dozen fatal shootings in 2002. Malvo was 17. “I trusted him completely. Whatever he was or was not, he was consistent….If he uttered it, it was as good as the next sun rising. Not only have I accepted him, he became a pattern for me to follow. I absorbed his personality by way of osmosis…Thought was a burden I left up to him. I was nothing without him.”

Recently, Malvo requested that Maryland officials reconsider his six life sentences without the possibility of parole. (He also has four life sentences in VA.) In Miller v. Alabama in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court had barred mandatory life sentences for offenders under 18, except for those rare few considered to be permanently incorrigible. The judge at Malvo’s proceeding had thought he was capable of change. His public defender now contends that Malvo should benefit from Maryland's new law that enables those convicted as juveniles to seek release after serving 20 years.

But victim relatives and advocates consider that the pain of seeing these offenders get a second chance, added to the harm they've caused, justifies opposing any relief: The victims will have no second chance, so why should their killers? These offenders, they say, should be equally incapacitated.

Justice, fairness, punishment, forgiveness. We’re at an impasse. The findings of science and the changes in law – not to mention the changes in people – pressure us to resolve it.

References

Albarus, C. and Mack, J. (2012) The making of Lee Boyd Malvo: The D.C. Sniper. Columbia University Press.

Casey, B. J., Jones, R. M., & Hare, T. A. (2008). The adolescent brain. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1124, 111–126. https://doi.org/10.1196/annals.1440.010

Ortiz, A. (2003). Adolescent brain development and legal culpability. https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/adolescent-brain-de…

Hernandez, K. A., Ferguson, S., & Kennedy, T. (2020). A closer look at juvenile homicide. Springer Nature.

Sapolsky, R. (2014, June 25). Dude – Where’s my frontal cortex? Natilus. https://nautil.us/dude-wheres-my-frontal-cortex-2149/

Schulberg, J. (2021, June 12). Kip Kinkel is ready to speak. Huffington Post.

Totenberg, N. (2020, Nov. 3) Supreme Court examines when juveniles may be sentenced to life without parole. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2020/11/03/930892945/supreme-court-examines-when-ju…

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