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Sentenced young: The story of life without parole for juvenile offenders

Nationwide, at least 1,200 people serve life without parole for crimes they committed as children. Beth Schwartzapfel on America's juvenile lifers.

Topics:
Public health
Child Welfare
U.S.
Jennifer Pruitt
Courtesy Jennifer Pruitt

Jennifer Pruitt can hardly remember a time when she felt safe. She says her father beat her until her eyes were blackened. He beat her mother and brothers. He drank and crashed their family cars, she says, and then he came home and beat them some more. And starting when she was about 10, Jennifer says, Denny Pruitt would arrange some alone time with her in a bedroom. When she told her mother about the abuse, her father called Jennifer a bitch and a liar. When she ran away from home, which she did increasingly often, the police would tell her she should feel lucky she had two parents, and then bring her back home. 

The Pruitts lived in a modest bungalow on Cornell Street in Pontiac, a struggling Rust Belt Detroit suburb. When Jennifer was about 15 she met Donnell Miracle, a drinking buddy of Denny’s. Blond and tomboyish at 23, Donnell had just moved in with a friend on Cornell Street after breaking up with her daughter’s father. She fit right in with the hard-drinking, blue-collar neighborhood men Denny worked with at General Motors. Donnell and her toddler daughter lived on Donnell’s welfare checks while she tried to figure out her next move.

“I don’t remember knowing too much about what was going on at her house,” Donnell recalls of Jennifer. “I just knew she was troubled.” Donnell says she had herself been molested by multiple men throughout her childhood, and perhaps she recognized something in Jennifer that made her feel protective. “She was a good girl, and I wanted her to have something different,” Donnell says.

The older woman would occasionally hire Jennifer to babysit her daughter, and soon Jennifer was spending a lot of time at Donnell’s house. They never talked directly about the abuse, but Jennifer sensed that Donnell’s house was a safe place to let her guard down. “If I said, ‘I hate my parents,’” Jennifer recalls, “she never said, ‘Don’t say that.’ I didn’t have to pretend.”

And one August day in 1992, with Denny screaming, calling Jennifer a slut, she finally broke down and walked over to Donnell’s house, shaking, crying, wild-eyed. “What’s wrong with you?” Donnell asked.

“I f---ing can’t stand this s---,” Jennifer choked out. “My father’s a f---ing a--hole. I’m not going back there.”

It was a warm, clear day — blue sky, Midwest sun — and Jennifer was weak-kneed with relief when Donnell answered, “You don’t have to.”

Evan Miller, Alabama

· One of the two defendants in last year’s Supreme Court case, Miller v. Alabama.

· He was regularly beaten by his father and was in and out of foster care, say news reports and court documents.

· While partying with one of his mother's drug dealers, Miller, then 14, tried to rob the man, Cole Cannon. The situation deteriorated. Miller beat Cannon and set his trailer on fire.

· Law initially required that Miller be tried as a juvenile, but prosecutors sought permission to try him as an adult.

Jennifer stayed with Donnell and didn’t go back home ever again, though not for reasons either of them could have imagined at the time.

Almost precisely one year later, Jennifer and Donnell were both convicted of homicide — for Donnell, first-degree murder, and for Jennifer, felony murder — and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Felony murder is a guilt-by-association conviction: If a victim dies while a felony is being committed, all the people committing that felony — whether or not they pulled the trigger, had a weapon or were even present at the time of the killing — can be treated as murderers under the law. Both women remain at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, in Michigan, to this day. 

Nationwide, there are at least 1,200 people serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed when they were children. No central agency tracks these sentences, so reliable numbers are hard to come by. A 2008 Amnesty International/Human Rights Watch (HRW) report counted 2,484 such people. A 2009 Heritage Foundation report took issue with their methodology and put the number at a more conservative 1,291. In addition, thousands more teenagers have been sentenced to life with the possibility of parole (which most experts agree is, in practice, the same sentence, given how rarely lifers get parole), or to de facto life sentences of 60 years or more. The United States is the only country in the world where kids are sentenced to die in prison.

A common perception is that these kids are “the worst of the worst,” and indeed, many juveniles sentenced to life have done terrible things. But HRW estimates that a quarter of them were, like Jennifer, convicted of “aiding and abetting” or of felony murders. Almost 60 percent had no prior criminal convictions. More than 70 juveniles were just 13 or 14 years old at the time of their crime — some so small when they arrived in prison that all the uniforms were too big for them. Anecdotally, many, like Jennifer, had been subjected to abuse and neglect, their childhoods marred by instability, poverty and violent or criminal behavior by the adults in their life.

Jacob Ind, Colorado

· After years of physical and emotional abuse, including rape by his parents, Ind began plotting to kill them, he told PBS Frontline

· He was 15 when he shot and stabbed his mother and stepfather with a friend's help.

· They were tried as adults, and given mandatory sentences of life without parole. Now in his 30s, Ind spent years in supermax solitary confinement, with no human contact for 23 hours a day.

“Almost all of these kids have been failed in a deep, deep way,” says Deborah LaBelle, an Ann Arbor attorney who last year won a landmark lawsuit on behalf of Jennifer and other juvenile lifers in Michigan. “We should have shame for our failure to protect (them).”

Ruling in LaBelle’s lawsuit, Hill v. Snyder, a federal judge eliminated life without parole for juveniles already serving those sentences in Michigan; he wrote that juvenile lifers must be “fairly considered for parole.” LaBelle has filed briefs and counter-briefs about what a fair chance at parole might look like. Hill v. Snyder brought Michigan into compliance with the Supreme Court's most recent ruling on the subject: In 2012, the court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life without parole is unconstitutional for juveniles. Whereas a handful of states — including most recently Massachusetts — bar juvenile life without parole entirely, the Supreme Court only eliminated the sentence in cases where the sentence is mandatory. Thus in most states, it is still legal to sentence a child to life without parole, as long as the judge has discretion to do otherwise.

In Michigan, Jennifer Pruitt and the state’s more than 350 other juvenile lifers can, if they let themselves hope, imagine a time they might one day be free. They wait for an appeals court to issue a decision on whether and how they will each get their shot at parole.

juveniles
Teenagers head toward the gym at Caddo Juvenile Detention Center in Shreveport, La. Three years ago the facility housed, on average, 45 to 50 juveniles per day. Since juvenile officials began their detention reform, they have managed to keep the number down to around 23 per day.
Val Horvath/The Times/AP

Elmer Heichel was an elderly neighbor of Jennifer’s who would occasionally hire her to rake his leaves or run his errands. Jennifer knew that on Saturday nights Heichel and his buddies would go to the bar and come home intoxicated. So Donnell and Jennifer hatched a plan to go to his house and rob him; Donnell would distract him in conversation while Jennifer went inside, ostensibly to use the bathroom. Instead, she would take whatever cash she could find in the bedroom, and the two women would leave. Jennifer figured Heichel would be so drunk that he wouldn’t even remember the interaction in the morning. “I thought it was so simple,” Jennifer says. “It couldn’t go wrong.”

And at first, it didn’t. After taking the cash from Heichel’s wallet, Jennifer snuck back into the bathroom to complete the charade — flush the toilet, run the faucet. But she came out to discover Heichel lying on the living room floor while Donnell stabbed the old man again and again. He looked at Jennifer, asked her for help. "Jennifer," he said, "I've known you for a long time." She panicked, froze, went back into the bathroom to throw water on her face.

Jennifer was just a few days shy of her 18th birthday when she stood before the Honorable Judge Fred Mester as he weighed his options: sentence her as a juvenile, which would have required the state to release her in three years, on her 21st birthday, or sentence her as an adult, which, under mandatory sentencing laws, meant life without parole.

When she committed her crime, Jennifer Pruitt was 16: too young, under Michigan law, to be declared independent from her parents, to serve on a jury, to drive a car without restrictions — even to attend an R-rated movie alone. And yet, on November 15, 1993, Judge Mester sentenced Jennifer to grow up, grow old and die in prison.

Quantel Lott, Missouri

· As a child, Lott was molested and beaten, according to CNN  and court documents. He grew up watching family members use and sell crack cocaine.

· When Lott was 14, a play-scuffle with his stepbrother Michael Barton, 17, escalated. Lott later said he remembered little about stabbing Michael with a hunting knife and that when he was told later what had happened, “I was crushed,” he told The Guardian. “My brother was dead and they said that I did it. That just killed me."

In the early ’90s, the nation was experiencing a steep increase in violent crime, and this trend was nowhere more troubling than among adolescents: Between the mid-’80s and the mid-’90s, the number of homicides committed by teenagers with guns climbed steadily each year, peaking in 1993 at more than 3,000 — roughly three times what the yearly rate had been from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s. High-profile crimes, like the Central Park jogger case in 1989 lent urgency to the sentiment that something had to be done with these kids, and soon.

The country’s anxiety crystallized with the publication of the 1996 book “Body Count,” in which political scientist John DiIulio warned of a “demographic crime bomb”: “America is now home to thickening ranks of juvenile ‘super-predators,’” he wrote, “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more pre-teenage boys, who murder, assault, rape, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs, and create serious communal disorders. They do not fear the stigma of arrest, the pains of imprisonment, or the pangs of conscience.”

As it turns out, teenage gun homicides dropped steadily between the 1993 peak and 2000 and have leveled off since then. DiIulio’s book was almost immediately discredited by criminologists, and DiIulio himself has since recanted. But state legislatures had already raced to pass laws targeting these remorseless and irredeemable young criminals.

Ashley Jones, Alabama

· When Jones was a child, her mother repeatedly abandoned her in crack houses, according to court documents. At 13, her grandparents took her in.

· The next year, she and her boyfriend went on a rampage, killing her grandfather and aunt and seriously wounding her sister and grandmother. “Ashley Jones is not the poster child for the argument that life without parole is too long,” the prosecutor told The New York Times. But her grandmother disagreed, saying "she should have gotten 15 or 20 years."

Until the early ’90s, most children accused of a crime were handled by the juvenile justice system; to try or sentence children as adults, most states required a hearing in which a judge took into consideration their age and their capacity for rehabilitation. Today, all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., and the federal government, allow kids under age 18 to be tried as adults, sometimes automatically given certain crimes, or by the decision of the prosecutor alone. As of 2005, in a majority of states, the minimum age is 13; several states set no minimum age at all.

But these laws fly in the face of what we know about kids. “When you’re an adult, you can get a job, you can drive a car, you can leave your environment. You can make certain choices,” says LaBelle. “A child cannot just walk away. Can’t get in a car and say, ‘This neighborhood sucks. I’m going to go and get a job somewhere else.’”   

Elizabeth Cauffman, a leading researcher on the relationship between adolescent development and juvenile justice policy, says, “Adolescents and adults are cognitively equivalent — adolescents are as smart as adults — at about the age of 16. What’s different is the … emotional regulation. That ability to control, that ability to plan. That part continues to develop well up into the 20s and beyond.”

Using sophisticated imaging technology, psychologists and brain scientists now have a better sense of the physiological reasons this is so. They relate primarily to two regions of the brain: the primitive limbic area, which is the seat of our emotions, and the frontal lobe or prefrontal cortex, underdeveloped in adolescents, which “allows us to act on the basis of reason,” Daniel Weinberger, director of the Clinical Brain Disorders Laboratory at the National Institutes of Health, wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

Beginning around puberty, says Thomas Grisso of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, “in the brain studies, they see a higher level of activation in (the limbic) area, and greater responsiveness to external stimulation, to rewards, to things that might excite one.” The overactive limbic system and the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex make for a potentially dangerous combination in adolescents: The limbic area, explains Grisso, “says, ‘That would be fun!’” In a healthy adult, “the frontal lobe says, ‘Wait, will there be consequences for that?’” But in teenagers, “There’s this surge in responsiveness to stimulation before the frontal lobe has developed the ability to inhibit that most efficiently,” he says.

Thus, the “15-year-old brain does not have the biological machinery to inhibit impulses in the service of long-range planning,” Weinberger wrote. “This is why it is important for adults to help children make plans and set rules.”

Of course, whether there is a direct line from the teenage brain to teenage crime is a matter of debate. Stephen Morse, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, has coined the term “brain overclaim syndrome” to describe the way that “brains are blamed for offenses,” as he writes, while “agency and responsibility disappear from the legal landscape.”

Opponents of juvenile life without parole point out that the same limitations that make children less culpable for their criminal actions also apply to their experience in the courtroom. “Many young adolescents … are not developmentally and intellectually mature enough to be legally ‘competent’ to stand trial,” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International wrote in their joint 2005 report. The report points out children’s unique vulnerability to making false confessions, not recognizing bad advice from their defense attorneys and not understanding what is at stake during their trials.

In cases of juvenile life, it’s not uncommon for older co-defendants, more mature and savvy to the criminal justice system, to take a plea deal — sometimes in exchange for testimony against the others — while the juvenile, naive and often the least culpable, ends up with the harshest sentence.

Keith Maxey
Keith Maxey, Keith Jr. and Keith's mother
Courtesy Tonya Raphael

So when a judge asks a 17-year-old, as Keith Maxey from Detroit was asked in September 2008, “Do you understand that you have a significant downside risk” to turning down a plea deal, or when the judge says, “You need to be aware (that) if you go to trial and … they find (you) guilty there’s a very real likelihood that you may not be walking anywhere any time soon as a free man,” it’s fair to ask whether that teenager can honestly say he does understand.

Keith Maxey was charged with felony murder after 20-year-old Brian McClendon was killed on Christmas Eve 2007 in a drug deal gone bad. No one disputed that Keith was unarmed, did not shoot McClendon and in fact was himself shot and grievously injured in the melee. (Keith maintains that he didn’t even know his friends were planning to rob the dealers.)

Keith’s friend Tyrell Adams — who planned the robbery — pled guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree murder and will serve 23 to 40 years. He was 20 at the time. Twenty-four-year-old Antoine Bailey, who prosecutors say fired the fatal shots, was convicted of assault with intent to commit murder and sentenced to at least 14 years.

In the run-up to trial, the prosecutor offered Keith two increasingly more lenient plea deals; Keith turned down the first, and when he was considering the second — pleading guilty to second-degree murder, with a 10- to 20-year sentence — Keith turned his head to look at his family, seated behind him in the courtroom.

“You can look at me, not them,” the judge snapped. “I don’t even know who those folks are.”

Keith paused. “Can I look by at my mother?” he asked.

His mother can barely talk through the tears as she remembers the few moments the judge allowed her with Keith. “I said, ‘Keith, I think we should take the plea deal.’

“He said, ‘Mama, but I didn’t do nothing. If I take a plea deal it will always be on me that I was guilty of something that I didn’t do.’”

One month later, convicted of felony murder, Keith was sentenced to life without parole.

Kuntrell Jackson, Arkansas

· Jackson's childhood was unstable and violent, according to court filings. When he was 6, his mother was incarcerated for shooting a neighbor.

· At 14, Jackson, a cousin and their friend planned to rob a video store. The friend, Jackson later learned, was carrying a shotgun. Jackson was inside the store when the friend shot and killed the clerk. Because Jackson had prior arrests for shoplifting and car theft, he was tried as an adult. He received a mandatory sentence of life without parole. 

Even the most ardent opponents of juvenile life without parole will readily admit that some people — including the rare child — are truly depraved, too broken or dangerous to safely return home. Charles Manson has come up for parole 12 times, says Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “He’s never going to get paroled. Nobody wants violent people on the streets, whether they are kids or adults.”

But the vast majority of kids, given their brain plasticity and increasing maturity, are better equipped to change than adults are.

For seven years, a large Department of Justice study followed 1,300 people who committed serious crimes as teenagers. More than 90 percent of them “greatly reduce their offending over time, regardless of the intervention,” according to a summary of the research; whether they were sent to adult prison or the juvenile system, incarcerated for a long time or a short time, did not matter. What mattered, it seems, was that they got older.

“These are the kids everybody’s afraid of,” says Elizabeth Cauffman, the researcher on adolescent development — those who assault, rob, and kill. “Over time, they just stop offending. We call it the ‘age-crime curve.’ It’s shown time and again: Crime peaks at 18 or 19 years of age and begins to decline. Around 26, it really drops off.”

That’s why many advocates call for giving these kids a meaningful chance at parole, beginning sometime in their 20s. “A 15-, 16-, 17-year-old, we can’t tell at that age what they’re going to be like decades later,” says Lavy. “So we have to have the opportunity to check in on them later in life.” That’s not to say they will get parole, necessarily. But knowing that they could, advocates say, gives them an incentive to learn from their mistakes.

Jennifer Pruitt is 37 now, with clear blue eyes and rhinestone tortoiseshell glasses. She has been in prison for 20 years, more than half her life. She has poise and insight that, it’s obvious from her carriage and her affect, are still new to her. Lifers are last on the list for prison programming, so it took her more than a decade to get into the critical thinking, assaultive offenders therapy and conflict resolution classes that she says have changed her life and her outlook. 

The prison where Jennifer is incarcerated
Google

I visited Jennifer and Donnell, now 44, on an unseasonably cold October day in Ypsilanti, a small city southeast of Ann Arbor in Michigan. As they are incarcerated in the same facility, “I will speak to her in passing on some occasions,” Jennifer wrote me in advance of my visit, “however there is not a dialogue between us, so I have no idea where she stands.” Waiting for me in the visitation room, they had their first real conversation since Elmer Heichel’s murder. That morning they decided they would finally see a therapist together.

On the day we met, Donnell’s blue-green eyes were framed with pink eye shadow; her brown hair was pulled back in a half-ponytail. She has an open, friendly face. Her daughter is 22 now, with two children of her own; raised by her stepmother, Donnell’s daughter didn’t even know Donnell existed until she was 13. They reunited four years ago.

Two decades on, Donnell still can’t really explain what made her propose a robbery. She was tired of being broke, but this was nothing new; she was always broke, and she’d never stolen anything before. In the visitation room, she asked Jennifer, “Was I joking?”

By that time, Jennifer had been at Donnell’s for five days. They didn’t want anyone — even Donnell’s roommate — to know that Jennifer was there, so Jennifer hid during the day in her friend’s closet. She barely ate. Donnell “was on welfare,” Jennifer says, “and I was already asking so much of her.” She just sat in the dark by herself, hungry, drinking cheap beer, waiting until everyone was asleep each night so she could come out again.

Jennifer was worried about becoming a burden to Donnell. So when the older woman said, “We should rob somebody. I’m tired of being broke,” Jennifer saw it as an opportunity to pay Donnell back for her kindness.

Donnell says that there in Elmer’s living room, the old man had tried to touch her breasts, and that given her childhood history, his hands on her made her snap. His family has disputed this, and Donnell acknowledges that it doesn’t excuse what she did. Her eyes brim with tears as she talks; she fidgets, fanning herself with the blue shirt of her prison uniform. “Me being responsible for someone’s death — the only way I can describe it is like a lesion on my soul that will never go away.” She dabs her eyes with toilet paper, takes several deep breaths. “I really hope this helps Jennifer,” she says quietly.

Jennifer talks about all the things she could have done differently. She could have dismissed Donnell’s suggestion to rob someone. She could have helped Elmer when he called to her. Instead, she followed Donnell’s instructions to go into the bedroom and mess things up so it would look like a random robbery. She counted the cash — $93 — and handed it over. She came back with Donnell later that night to wipe off their fingerprints.

And then, after Donnell had gone to sleep that night, Jennifer ran hysterically to a neighbor's house and contacted the police.  She was so distraught by what she had done that, diagnosed with acute post-traumatic stress disorder, she was hospitalized on a child psychiatric unit. After five months, psychiatrists deemed her competent to stand trial.

A case like Jennifer’s gives a skewed sense of the issue, says Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association. “The defense bar and Amnesty International and various groups across the country always talk about the juvenile. And they call them ‘the child.’ People throw out the frontal lobe, and that they’re young children, and they call them Joey and Billy and Susie.” (Indeed, in one of Jennifer’s legal briefs, her attorney refers to her as “Jenny” throughout, although only close friends call her that.) He accuses the ACLU and others who bring lawsuits on behalf of juvenile lifers of cherry-picking non-shooters and other sympathetic plaintiffs, as opposed to those like David Biro, a 16-year-old high school honor student who in 1990 broke into the home of Richard and Nancy Bishop Langert, a young Winnetka, Ill., couple expecting their first baby, and shot them execution-style. “He wanted to be the ultimate assassin,” said a friend.

“Prosecutors, while we certainly have feelings and empathy and care about criminal defendants,” says Burns, “our primary focus is and has been and will be on victims and families and how it impacts them.” In answer to critics who say that lifers deserve at least a chance at parole, Burns talks about the impact of these parole hearings on the surviving relatives of victims. Parole hearings, he says, take a deep financial and emotional toll on victims' surviving family members, who often travel hundreds of miles to be there and must face their loved ones’ killers again and again, every two or three or five years.

Gregory Diatchenko, Massachusetts

· Diatchenko had a traumatic childhood. At 17, he approached a Cadillac and demanded money from the driver. He stabbed the driver nine times, and the driver died.

· Tried as an adult and sentenced to life without parole, he later appealed to the Mass. Supreme Judicial Court.

· Diatchenko has been in prison 32 years. In December, the court ruled that life without parole in Massachusetts is unconstitutional.

· All 63 lifers sentenced as juveniles will now have a chance at parole.

Indeed, this has recently become a scary possibility for Nancy’s Langert’s sister, Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins.

One of the founders of National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers, Bishop-Jenkins readily admits that juvenile life without parole is at times inappropriate — in many felony murder cases, she says, “those folks should definitely be resentenced” — but she argues these cases are rare and can be addressed individually with appeals and other legal mechanisms already in place. “If you have weeds in your front lawn, you go in and you pull them,” she says. “But you don’t get a bulldozer and dig up the whole yard.”

The young man who killed Nancy and Richard “represents one of the ‘worst of the worst,’” Bishop-Jenkins says. When the couple begged him to spare the life of their child, he instead took aim and shot Nancy directly in the stomach. “There are people here in Illinois who work against juvenile life without parole who have told me with one voice, ‘This guy will never get out,’” says Bishop-Jenkins. “He’s a serial killer and a psychopath and unrepentant.”

So when a 2006 bill began circulating in the Illinois legislature that would have allowed parole hearings for lifers who were sentenced as juveniles, Bishop-Jenkins says she was “traumatized.” “It is a monumentally unfair thing to do to tell a family that a guy is serving life and then change that,” she says.

Still, even Bishop-Jenkins’ own family is split on the issue. Her surviving sister, Jeanne Bishop, says her faith led her to forgive Biro, and last year she began visiting him in prison. It seems to her he is making halting progress toward remorse and responsibility for his actions. Twenty-five years on, Jeanne doesn’t think Biro is ready to be released, but she doesn’t forswear the possibility that one day he might be. “This is a merciless sentence,” she told The Chicago Tribune. “It says no matter how redeemed you are, no matter how sorry or rehabilitated, we are never going to let you out.” The two sisters testified on opposite sides of a recent parole bill, drafted in response to Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court ruling on juvenile life.

“Victims alone understand how serious this is,” says Bishop-Jenkins. “What it does to your life to never have an end, a legal finality to the case involving your loved one’s murder. Constantly having to go back to contend with the offender.” 

As Deborah LaBelle was preparing to file Hill v. Snyder, the Michigan case about juvenile life, she met an inmate whose name sounded familiar. “When she found out who I was, that I was kin to Elmer Heichel, she asked me about it,” says Carl Heichel, 53, grandson of the man Donnell killed. “I told Deb LaBelle that me and my mother and father had talked about this years ago, and we agree. My grandfather would want her to have a chance,” Carl says of Jennifer. “I believe that wholeheartedly.”

I talked to Carl on the phone from Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Mich., where he, too, is serving a life sentence for stabbing a man to death. A friend pulled a knife on him while they were smoking crack together, and things got ugly. You might think this would ruin his credibility: a killer serving a life sentence saying killers should not get life sentences.

But Carl surprised me. “I don’t believe that I should get a second chance,” he said. “I’ve had a chance. I failed miserably. I let drugs run my life.” But, he continues, “(Jennifer) can still go out there and have a nice life, and do some good for other people. Incarcerating certain people for the rest of their life makes no sense.”

When the Supreme Court agreed, in Miller v. Alabama, it was the latest in a line of Supreme Court cases that hold that children are different than adults, and must be treated as such under the law. In 1988, the court ruled it unconstitutional to sentence someone to death for a crime he committed when he was younger than 16. In 2005, the court raised the age to 18. Five years later, the court ruled that life without parole for a non-homicide crime was unconstitutional for children.

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.

Judge Fred Mester

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.