Peace through victory - the American way.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

NPR begins assault on life without parole for juveniles who murder.

The ink is barely dry on the United States Supreme Court's decision that declared the death penalty for juvenile murderers to be unconstitutional and already one of the flagships of the liberal media has fired the first salvo in the next battle: whether it's right to imprison murderers for life without parole who commit their crimes while under age 18.

Today, National Public Radio interviewed former Michigan State Reformatory warden Pam Withrow for her views on the issue. It should come as no surprise that she believes it's generally wrong to send a juvenile offender to prison and throw away the key. The interview was a friendly one intended to present the view, presumably by an expert in the field, that life without parole for juveniles is wrong.

My liberal friends scoff at the idea that NPR has a liberal bias. But this story illustrates how bias in the media is used to frame the debate. I wonder which is the liberal and which is the conservative view on this issue. Hmmmm, I wonder. As an aside, when Air America came to San Diego it advertised its debut on the local NPR affiliate. Money talks in this country and where advertising money is spent says volumes. As a further aside, it's no coincidence either that Fox News attracts a more conservative demographic.

Much has been said by conservative commentators, columnists and radio talk-show hosts about the Supreme Court's decision on the juvenile death penalty. The useful commentary has focused on the Court's reliance on foreign law to interpret the American Constitution. It's useful because it looks forward to coming battles over the propriety of using foreign law to interpret America's Constitution. But much of the conservative criticism has been a rear-guard action complaining about the result. There's little point in that. The Supreme Court has settled the issue and conservatives would do well to move on to issues that flow from the decision.

One issue involves applying the death penalty to adults who recruit juveniles to commit murder. Passing such a law would address one potential consequence of the case that adults will use juveniles to commit murder. Such a law would be politically safe as it protects juveniles from being used by predatory adult criminals. It would be constitutionally safe because it punishes adults not juveniles.

I am as ambivalent about such a provision as I am about the death penalty itself. It should be unquestionable that the death penalty is constitutional. The 5th Amendment refers to capital crimes and also provides that the government may deprive a person of his life, but only after providing "due process of law." The 8th Amendment bars cruel and unusual punishment but to read that provision as a bar on the death penalty ignores the language of the 5th Amendment. Yet it would not bother me in the least if the death penalty were banned by legislation, popular initiative, or constitutional amendment. It seems to me that life without parole is a sufficient punishment, even for murder, and is an appropriate punishment, even for juveniles.

Life without parole may be interpreted by some as giving up on the juvenile. It's actually the death penalty that does that. Life without parole makes no value judgment on whether the offender will ever have something to offer society. It only limits where and how the offender will give something back. Rent Robert Duvall's movie, "The Apostle" to see what I mean. Duvall plays a minister whose flawed character takes him on a spiral to prison where we see him at the end of the movie witnessing to his fellow inmates. To make it plain, juvenile murderers committed to life in prison without parole can give back to society by doing the right thing in prison.

Why should their options be so limited? First, fairness requires that a murderer's options be more limited than those of a non-murderer. Even those of us who live outside prison's walls have a limited impact on society. Typically we measure our contribution to society in our affect on colleagues, friends, and family. Our impact is limited to where we live and who we know just as an inmate's is. Second, retribution demands it. It's no small thing to take a life. To make up for the value of the life taken, the murderer should be made to pay a large price in return. When the juvenile chose to commit murder he made the decision himself to give up on his victim's life. His victim will never offer anything to society again. Short of execution a lifetime loss of freedom is a proportional price to pay for that.

The NPR piece begins the argument over life without parole for juvenile murderers. This is likely to become a battle that will be fought out in the culture, in state capitals, and eventually in the United States Supreme Court.




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