State legislatures must now amend their sentencing laws to comply with Miller, and state courts are scrambling to determine how to apply it to their populations of juvenile lifers. Does Miller apply retroactively to sentences handed down before the Supreme Court’s ruling? If so, should each person be entitled to his own individual resentencing? Should states make a blanket change, commuting all juvenile lifers’ mandatory sentences to life with the possibility of parole? These questions will get answered, piecemeal, in the coming years, as prosecutors, defense attorneys, legislatures and individual inmates battle them out state by state.
Going forward, some states are experimenting with alternate sentencing options such as a “blended sentence,” which allows a judge to sentence a child to the juvenile system and suspend the “adult” portion of his sentence until he’s 21. At that point the judge can see what progress the child has made and decide what portion, if any, of the remainder of his sentence he must serve in adult prison.
Judge Mester didn’t have that option more than 20 years ago when he sentenced Jennifer Pruitt. From his two available options, he chose the adult sentence, mandatory life without parole, over the juvenile one, three years. But he now looks at who Jennifer has become and wishes he had made a different choice.
“I think the Jennifer Pruitt case, more than any of the other felony murders I’d had previously, brought home to me that this is not the way our justice system should operate,” he says. Mester’s voice caught with emotion when I told him that Carl Heichel had forgiven Jennifer and asked for her to have a second chance. “Will you thank him for me?” Mester asked. “We humans do a lot of stupid and bad things. And the one thing that helps us move on is the sense that there is an atoning for the crime. And forgiveness from the victim — that creates a better civilization.”
Now retired, Mester says he no longer feels comfortable with treating felony murder and first-degree murder the same for sentencing purposes, and he feels that everyone — even those who committed the most heinous of crimes — deserves a chance at parole.
Jennifer Pruitt was 27 before it really hit her what a life sentence meant. At first, she says, “I was actually kind of relieved to come to prison. That’s how bad it was at my house.” When her lawyer pressed her, “I kept saying, ‘I get it, I get it,’” she says, “but I don’t think I completely wrapped my whole mind around it.” When she finally did, she vacillated between anger, guilt and shame for what happened.
“Jennifer’s life in prison can be broken down into several components,” her lawyer wrote in a recent motion requesting she be considered for parole. “The first is the ugly component.” The second, she continued, “is a model of strength, courage, and recovery.” Upon coming to prison, Jennifer suffered years of sexual assault by correctional officers. Distraught and afraid, she says, she would lie awake nights and sleep all day.
Still, she gained the strength and courage to testify in 2008 as part of a class-action suit about the abuse. This in turn strengthened her confidence and helped her find her voice (more than 500 women were ultimately awarded $100 million for the systematic abuse, though none of the officers ever faced criminal charges). She has completed more than a dozen mental health programs, obtained her GED and several vocational certifications, and worked full time in the laundry and the kitchen. She serves as a peer mediator in a conflict resolution program that manages disputes among inmates. She mentors juvenile offenders, tries to make them feel understood even as she points out their errors in judgment. “I wanted so bad to be validated,” she says. “That’s what created all this chaos. People think kids want to be right — they just want to be validated. There’s a difference.”
Over the years, Jennifer says, she has come to forgive her father — as much for herself as for him. "I realized that I was taking away from who I am as a person by holding onto the resentments that I had," she says.
Jennifer moved into a special substance-abuse unit as a patient in 2010, but continues to live there now as a mentor and peer counselor. At her graduation from that program, she said, “Today I am freer than I have ever been because I am free on the inside.”
Still, having shared a 10’x12’ cell with two other people for 20 years, Jennifer dreams of space: When she lets herself imagine a life outside prison, it’s in a town with “a lot of fields, a lot of land,” she says — perhaps with a house of her own, a horse, a goat, a car. She’d like to work with kids; apropos of her recent work, “maybe training people to listen.” But whatever she does, Jennifer says, she wants to “fade off. Be in the background.” She looks forward to a day when she can “go where I’m not recognized. I’m known as a juvenile lifer. I’m known as that girl from the lawsuit. I want to be looked at and judged for who I am now.”
Editor’s note: A reference to the strains on the relationship between Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins and Jeanne Bishop has been deleted per additional information from Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins.