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How Men who Murdered as Teenagers, Reframed My Views on Rehabilitation

This blog is the first in a series about Juvenile Lifers and what we might learn about the concept of change and strategies for rehabilitation from them. 

Over the past 18 months or so, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several of Pennsylvania’s 500 Juvenile Lifers as they prepare for resentencing and a possibility that they might return to community living. The men I’ve met have spent as long as four consecutive decades incarcerated in the state’s correctional institutions; their confinement a result of the actions they took as teenagers, each one ending another’s life, some more than one life. Up until the last few years, none of these men had any reason to believe that they’d ever live in any community other than prison. A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions changed this reality.

If you had met only a younger version of these adult men, one could make a case that at least some might have been characterized as “Superpredators,” the now infamous label coined in the 1990’s by American political scientist John Dilulio. The term was used to describe a group of reckless, impulsive, remorseless juvenile criminals which Dilulio and others predicted would grow exponentially threatening public safety. While the “Superpredator” theory has been disproved and its creator has since disavowed the theory, there is scientific evidence that some criminals are just more serious or “risky” than others, are likely to persist in their anti-social behavior and victimize more people.

But I didn’t meet these men as kids; I know their “backstory” only from records. And some of those records gave me pause, many pauses really, to ask, is it even reasonable to think this person can change? And if change is even possible, how can anyone or anything disentangle and then meaningfully address the multiple traumas in this person’s background? Can the behaviors such as impulsivity and poor decisionmaking which studies show are causally related to criminal behavior be “fixed?” From a biological or developmental perspective, can a person overcome one or more appropriately many, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and go on to lead a productive life?

A review of the Juvenile Lifers’ family and social histories shows some commonalities; born to mothers who are often young and suffer from mental illness and/or addiction; living in neighborhoods marked by poverty, violence, drug use and drug dealing, being physically and/or sexually abused during childhood sometimes on an on-going basis and witnessed their mothers being assaulted. I so often find myself shaking my head and thinking about how none of us has a choice about the circumstances we are born into but how those circumstances mold and shape us. Many of these men had difficulties in school from the early grades, began cutting school regularly by age 10, got into trouble when they did come to school and were suspended multiple times. Their criminal involvement often began before their age registered in double-digits. Many times, the on-set of serious criminal behavior coincided with their regular use of illegal drugs.

The adult men I met presented so differently than a review of their early years might suggest. What I found most often, was a person who had “settled in,” appeared thoughtful and remorseful and who, after several years of “poor” prison adjustment, was behaving well, participating in positive activities and treatment and working a prison job. Beyond this, many of these men had found a purpose. This was not true for all, but the reality that it was true for even one, reinvigorated and in some ways redefined, the idea of rehabilitation for me.

Future blog posts will explore more about what change or “rehabilitation” looks like for these individuals and what their insights might mean for future policy and practice.

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