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I Have to Go, But Make Yourself at Home

When I started this blog, I thought I had found a cause I needed to get behind. I came to learn that the issue is far more complicated than I’d ever imagined. I continue to believe there is something fundamentally wrong about trying and convicting juveniles as adults and incarcerating them in adult prison for life without the possibility of parole, but my reasons have changed.

I learned that most of these juvenile offenders committed unspeakable crimes. I learned that in cases where offenders could be said to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, someone was brutally murdered.

I learned that the loved ones of the victims of these crimes;  mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children, friends and neighbors endure a lifetime of grief and pain. Marriages fall apart. Mental illness and substance abuse often ensue.

The loved ones of the juvenile offenders suffer similar fates, although often alone, shunned by relatives, friends and members of their communities.

I searched on line and read books on everything I could find detailing the crimes of the 46 offenders in my home state of Colorado who will die in prison, trying to understand how they could have done the things they did. I found no answers. Some of them made impulsive, stupid decisions and ended up being party to deadly crimes. And some of them are dangerous sociopaths who are incapable of feeling compassion for other people or remorse for what they’ve done.

I met with victim and offender advocates, exchanged emails with them and spoke to them on the phone for hours. I met the relatives of victims and the relatives of offenders. My heart truly aches for all of them.

I came to understand the pain to the victims’ families whenever they watch well-meaning offender advocates speaking on behalf of the murderers of their loved ones. I became attuned to the silent anger and pain most of them feel at displays of support for freeing the offenders and the insensitivity usually displayed toward the victims and their families.  I came to wince whenever I heard the offenders referred to as “children”. I learned of the fear and horror the victims’ families endure at the idea that those who they thought would be locked away forever could be free again or at the idea that they might have to relive the details of the crime and face the offender at parole hearings, maybe for the rest of their lives.

And the offenders?

I exchanged letters with offenders and conducted an extensive Q&A through the mail with one. Those questions and answers are here on this blog. I grew to like him. He’s now been incarcerated longer than he’d been alive at the time of his crimes. The more I learned about life inside a maximum security prison, the more pessimistic my view of the  justice and corrections systems concerning violent juveniles.

Some of the offenders may have been capable of rehabilitation at the time of their crimes if they’d been put into an intense correctional program focused on restorative justice and away from adult inmates. Perhaps after serving appropriately lengthy sentences some could have eventually been safely released into society. Those kinds of sentencing options weren’t available then and they aren’t available now.

I have come to believe that years of incarceration in a maximum security adult corrections system that provides no opportunity for rehabilitation and where a teenager’s fate as prey or as hardened convict is quickly decided begins to erode and eventually eliminates the possibility of rehabilitation and redemption.

So what do I think should change about all of this?

It’s too late to change the past.

I don’t think there is a good sentencing or corrections solution for violent teenage criminals. I think they’re too dangerous for juvenile facilities, and I don’t think they belong in Supermax.

There is nothing else.

In almost all of the cases I am familiar with, some kind of intervention by family, school, friends, social services or law enforcement might have prevented the heinous crimes that followed. In almost all of these cases, someone or something failed these juveniles and so failed all of us.

I’ve stayed away from this blog for almost a year, but I learned a lot from the research I did, the people I met and the comments people left here. I am grateful to all of those people who spoke with me, exchanged emails with me and shared their pain with me.

I believe there are things here that people can learn from. Despite my inattention to this site, it’s gotten over 38,000 hits since I started it. On some days over 100 people still come here.

This discussion will continue until we find a way to come to terms with why so many American juveniles commit violent crimes and until we find a way to make it stop.

My part in this dialog is finished.

All the posts will remain, so make yourself at home and stay as long as you like.



Pendulum Foundation Responds to Former DA Piece on Ending Juvenile LWOP

This piece was published on March 9th at A response to Mr. Mangino from Mary Ellen Johnson, Executive Director of the Pendulum Foundation is posted immediately following this article.

With the introduction of HR 4300, a call to end the Juvenile LWOP sentence nationally I suspect the dialogue surrounding this charged issue will be picking up. There are significant, legitimate concerns on both sides of this debate, but so far, positions appear to remain polarized. An attempt to find solutions that address public safety, the victims of the crimes, the age of the offenders at the time of the crimes, the circumstances surrounding the crimes and alternative approaches to rehabilitation do not seem to be a part of the larger discussion. Perhaps that will change. I would like to hope so.

Published:Sunday, March 9, 2008

Matthew T. Mangino

Handle juvenile lifers cautiously

There is a renewed urgency to abolish life without parole (LWOP) for juveniles. In the last several weeks The New York Times, among other outlets, have called for a halt in sending juveniles to prison for life with no hope of parole. With mounting public pressure, policymakers would do well to proceed with caution.

Life without parole is not unlike the death penalty. Paul Wright, a former lifer, told The New York Times, “It’s a death sentence by incarceration. You’re trading a slow form of death for a faster one.” Only three years ago the United States Supreme Court banned the execution of juveniles. The decision in Roper v. Simmons resulted in the commutation of 72 juvenile death penalties; a significant majority of those juvenile offenders were re-sentenced to LWOP.

When the U.S. Supreme Court made the landmark decisions in Roper as well as Atkins v. Virginia, banning the execution of the mentally retarded, the justices cited “evolving standards of decency.” In the analysis of evolving standards of decency the court considers the action of state lawmakers to establish a national consensus. When Atkins was argued, 30 states had banned the execution of the mentally retarded. When Roper was argued, the same number of states had banned the execution of juveniles. Today only eight states have banned LWOP for juveniles. California is considering a bill that would eliminate LWOP and limit juvenile sentences to 25 years to life. Michigan, Illinois, Nebraska and Florida are considering similar legislation, which would make a significant number but not a national consensus.

At the time of the Atkins and Roper decisions death penalty abolitionist argued that LWOP was an appropriate alternative sentence to the death penalty. Today, the same arguments made to abolish the death penalty are being incorporated into the argument against LWOP for juveniles.

Juvenile’s brain

Those who are advocating for the end of juvenile LWOP often cite research suggesting that the juvenile brain is not yet fully developed. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in Roper that juveniles are cognitively immature and therefore less culpable. The brain development argument is being used with more frequency in courtrooms across the country.

The juvenile criminal court system is distinctly different from the adult criminal court system. The juvenile system is not punitive. The focus is on rehabilitation and is oriented toward the treatment of young offenders. However, it has been suggested that some young offenders are not amenable to treatment and are so dangerous that only a lifetime of incarceration would protect the public.

Justice Kennedy wrote in Roper, “It is difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” He goes on to write that it is impermissible to render an opinion about antisocial disorders in offenders under age 18. That is precisely the point; the diagnosis should be made after the age of 18 with the ability to keep that rare offender with “irreparable corruption” from harming another innocent person.

LWOP for juveniles convicted of first degree murder should be an option for judges, not a mandatory requirement. Sentences, especially for juveniles charged as adults, should be specifically tailored for each individual offender. This could be effectuated by giving judges the discretion that legislatures rushed to take away when getting “tough on crime.”

A juvenile sentenced to LWOP need not be doomed to a lifetime of hopelessness. Governors across the country have the ability to grant clemency. The pardon is a long accepted method of invoking fairness and justice.

States would do well to follow the lead of Colorado and establish juvenile clemency boards. The board would be charged with reviewing antisocial disorders in offenders now over the age of 18 who were sentenced to LWOP as juveniles. The legislature could establish parameters for consideration and guidelines for recommending clemency to the governor.

The question is not whether some violent juvenile offenders deserve to be locked away for life, but rather, do law abiding citizens deserve the protection that total incapacitation of dangerous offenders affords. Policymakers should not blindly rush to abolish an appropriate sentencing option, without first considering judicial discretion and executive authority.

X Matthew T. Mangino is the former district attorney of Lawrence County. He is a featured columnist for the Pennsylvania Law Weekly. He can be reached at .

The following response was sent to Mr. Mangino by Mary Ellen Johnson, Executive Director of the Pendulum Foundation.

Subject: Response to your article: Handle JLWOPS Carefully

Mr. Mangino,

Just a few words in response to your thoughtful article. The Pendulum Foundation, the head of the CO DA’s council, and a CO legislator agreed on a juvenile clemency board in response to several years of bruising legislative battles dealing with kids serving life. The board will soon have its first two candidates (a juvenile can be serving less than life to apply.) Iremember at the time Governor Ritter signed the executive order that defense attorneys said, “Watch what he does. He NEVER has to grant a commutation but it sure makes him look good.” I thought the attorneys were being cynical.

In a few weeks two young prisoners will have their cases heard. Not being an attorney but merely an advocate, I have to admit I no longer  have much faith in the system either. The board is stacked with law enforcement. The head of the board is a former prosecutor who testified against and prosecuted several of the young men and women who will be seeking a pardon or commutation. Despite the fact that Colorado ranks 5th in the disproportionate number of minorities serving juvenile LWOP, no African-American is represented. Even though The Pendulum Foundation conceived the very idea of the juvenile clemency board originally, we are not allowed to have any interaction with the board. We had hoped to be able to suggest a certain set of criteria most suited to juveniles.

Upon entering the system young offenders have MANY different problems from those who are incarcerated in their twenties or thirties. One major difference is gang involvement. Kids going into the adult system WILL join a gang for protection. Only after they’ve been inside for a while will they feel confident-and safe enough–to find their own friends. That involvement often sends them directly to a control unit. More than half of our kids have spent up to 8 years in our Super Max. They can’t apply for a commutation – and they can’t work their way back out into general population. The reality is so very different from the theory and from the tidy declarations of the board that the dominant emotion among many of us is simply despair.

The liaison between advocates and the board assures us that our voices will be heard via my emails and that we must give the board a chance. However, when we look beyond the board to the governor, we ask: If I were Governor Ritter, would I give ANY of these young men and women a clemency or commutation? No, not when they get no programs or therapy or any sort of rehabilitation. So The Pendulum Foundation has offered extensive cognitive behavior therapy, beginning with young LWOPS who are mandated by law to receive programs,  to all  Colorado prisoners.

Cost to the state: ZERO.

We’ve received lip service and no actual interest. So we wonder, does anyone really care about lowering recidivism? Does anyone really want to slow the growth in the three-quarters of a billion Colorado corrections budget? (With less than 3% of that budget going to any sort of programs.)  IS the juvenile clemency board just for show? It’s too early to tell but you know that in the best of times, clemency and commutation are seldom granted. One CO governor granted 4 for battered women years ago. Needless to say, there is no such outcry on behalf of battered children – of whom we have two serving life sentences for killing their abusers. I will end this too long letter with another thank you for addressing this difficult issue. I suspect that we can both agree on one thing: the implementation or dismissal of a juvenile clemency board will not fix a very fundamental problem. The real problem is with the devolution of our justice system, and more deeply with the shifting in the American psyche away from redemption and rehabilitation to a mindless embrace of retribution.


Mary Ellen Johnson, Executive Director


Colorado Children’s Code Authorizes Restorative Justice Conferences for Adjudicated Youth

This article is from a publication of the Restorative Practices eForum, a free email information service from the International Institute for Restorative Practices.

“On March 31, 2008, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter signed into law House Bill 08-1117, which authorizes the use of restorative justice (RJ) in the state’s Children’s Code and gives Colorado the legislative edge among states that sanction the use of RJ. The bill passed 63-1 in the House and 33-0 in the Senate.

Upon signing the bill, Governor Ritter said, “By making juvenile offenders take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, we can teach them that the decisions they make, both good and bad, will affect the course of their life. Repairing the harm that someone has caused can be the thing that matters most in the criminal justice system.” Added Ritter, “As a former prosecutor, I’ve seen too many people start out committing minor crimes as juveniles and escalate to committing serious crimes as adults. We must do everything we can to intervene early and break this cycle.”

The law, sponsored by State Representative Michael Merrifield in the House and by State Senator John Morse in the Senate, gives judges the authority to offer accused young offenders the legal option to voluntarily participate in RJ processes. The law encodes a well-defined definition of restorative justice and practices:

“ ‘Restorative Justice’ means those practices that emphasize repairing the harm to the victim and the community caused by criminal acts. Restorative justice practices may include victim-offender conferences attended voluntarily by the victim, a victim advocate, the offender, community members, and supporters of the victim or the offender that provide an opportunity for the offender to accept responsibility for the harm caused to those affected by the crime and to participate in setting consequences to repair the harm. Consequences recommended by the participants may include, but need not be limited to, apologies, community service, restoration, and counseling. The selected consequences are incorporated into an agreement that sets time limits for completion of the consequences and is signed by all participants.” Continue reading here.

OJJDP Bulletin Examines Violence by Teenage Girls

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has published “Violence by Teenage Girls: Trends and Context.” The first in a series of publications from OJJDP’s Girls Study Group, the bulletin assesses trends of juvenile arrest rates for violent crimes, focusing on simple and aggravated assault. It also examines the context in which girls and boys offend, including the type of victims targeted and environments where offenses commonly occur.


“Violence by Teenage Girls: Trends and Context” is available online only at

For further information about OJJDP’s Girls Study Group, visit

Petition in Support of HR4300 – Ending Juvenile Life Without Parole

There is a new online petition in support of HR4300, which would end the sentencing Juveniles to Life Without the possibility of parole. Follow this link to the petition. The body of the petition is as follows:

I honor Representatives Scott and Conyers for their courage in proposing HR 4300. I encourage you, Honorable Members of the Sub-Committee, to begin to do the hard work in discerning where justice truly lies concerning the youth of America. Please help HR 4300 on its way to the full House.

Sponsored by: HTTP://HR4300.COM

The U. S. disproportionately sentences child offenders to LWOP. With an estimated 2,380 child offenders serving the sentence, and 42 of the 50 states and the federal government permitting the sentence, the U.S. is home to over 99% of youth serving the sentence in the world. 10 states set no minimum age and 12 states set a minimum of 10-13 years of age and 16% who receive this sentence are indeed of this young age. Of great concern are the tremendous racial disparities among the populations receiving the sentence. Finally, it is your responsibility as our leadership to be acutely aware of the unthinkable fact that adult prisons are especially harsh on juveniles. The suicide rate for juveniles in adult facilities is 8 times that of juveniles in detention facilities.

The United States is the only nation on earth that sentences its children to life without parole (LWOP). We have more than 2300 children sentenced to die in prison, including some as young as 13. Children are NOT adults. All studies show that teens brains are not fully developed, and that they do not have the maturity to always make rational, reasoned decisions. The United States Supreme Court stated that children should not be held to the same level of culpability as adults.

HR4300 would give children sentenced to life the opportunity for parole once in 15 years.

We support HR4300.

They can, however, be sentenced to life in prison and its equivalent in years without the possibility of parole, a sentence reserved for those people in our society for whom there is considered to be no redemption. Do you agree that children are beyond redemption? Juvenile life without parole sentences ignore the very real scientific facts and social differences between children and adults, abandoning the concepts of redemption and second chances upon which this country was built. Psychoanalytical studies have shown that children lack the capacity to both understand and control their actions, which reduces culpability. The human brain does not reach its full capacity in the frontal cortex, the area of reasoning, until age 25.”

The actual bill can be read in its entirety here. The substance is as follows:

“For each fiscal year after the expiration of the period specified in subsection (d)(1), each State shall have in effect laws and policies under which each child offender who is under a life sentence receives, not less than once during the first 15 years of incarceration, and not less than once every 3 years of incarceration thereafter, a meaningful opportunity for parole. Not later than one year after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Attorney General shall issue guidelines and regulations to interpret and implement this section. This provision shall in no way be construed to limit the access of child offenders to other programs and appeals which they were rightly due prior to the passage of this Act.

Colorado Governor’s Office Cites Misinterpretation of Juvenile Clemency Board Eligibility Criteria

“When it was established last year, Colorado’s Juvenile Clemency Board was held out as a last ray of hope for young prisoners serving time for crimes they committed in their teens.

But 24 young prisoners serving life without parole – and many more serving lesser sentences – are ineligible to petition the board to reduce their sentences.

A misunderstood eligibility rule appears to be the problem.

It recently came to light when Christopher Selectman, 30, who is serving a life sentence for gunning down a man during a drug deal when he was 16, asked for an application and was told he wasn’t entitled to one.

That’s because he was 18 – an adult – by the time he was sentenced, according to his prison case manager.

In his executive order establishing the juvenile clemency board last fall, Gov. Bill Ritter said it was designed for juvenile offenders who had been tried as adults.”

Read the rest from the Rocky Mountain News here.

US Houses Nearly 25% of the Prisoners on the Planet

It’s an interesting observation that one of the things we’re most proud of in this country, our democratic form of government, may be part of the reason we have come to be so draconian in our sentencing practices. The trend since the 1970’s to get tough on crime may well be influenced more than it ought to be by the fact that our lawmakers are elected officials who tend to act in accordance with the demands of their constituents.

Our reputation as a country to emulate continues to suffer. This article in the New York Times provides more insight.

It used to be that Europeans came to the United States to study its prison systems. They came away impressed.

“In no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States,” Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured American penitentiaries in 1831, wrote in “Democracy in America.”

No more.

“Far from serving as a model for the world, contemporary America is viewed with horror,” James Q. Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, wrote last year in Social Research. “Certainly there are no European governments sending delegations to learn from us about how to manage prisons.”

Prison sentences here have become “vastly harsher than in any other country to which the United States would ordinarily be compared,” Michael H. Tonry, a leading authority on crime policy, wrote in “The Handbook of Crime and Punishment.”

Indeed, said Vivien Stern, a research fellow at the prison studies center in London, the American incarceration rate has made the United States “a rogue state, a country that has made a decision not to follow what is a normal Western approach.”

Why do you think we now lead the world in incarceration, and what do you think should be done about it?