To die in prison
Sunday, May 6, 2007
By Jesse Fruhwirth
Standard-Examiner Davis Bureau
Houston is first Utah juvenile facing life without parole; some wonder if sentence is fair for teen convicts
CLEARFIELD -- Robert Cameron Houston, who was 17 when he committed aggravated murder, earned an infamous spot in Utah history last week.
According to the Department of Corrections, he is the first juvenile offender to enter the Utah State Prison with no hope of dying anywhere but in prison.
Houston was sentenced by a jury to life in prison without parole after pleading guilty in March to the aggravated murder of Raechale Elton on Feb. 15, 2006. She was a counselor in a youth home where Houston lived.
Since 2005, when capital punishment of juvenile offenders was declared cruel and unusual and therefore unconstitutional, human rights groups in the U.S. have turned their efforts to fighting life without parole sentences levied against juveniles.
More than 2,200 individuals in the U.S. are serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles, according to a report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The report states that such sentences for juveniles are nearly non-existent anywhere else in the world.
There are signs of changing attitudes, however. In the U.S., eight states and the District of Columbia forbid life without parole penalties for juveniles. California's legislature is considering a bill that would make it the ninth state to ban the sentence.
Supporters of the harsh sentence say Houston's crime is arguably the most vile crime ever committed by a juvenile in Utah, so his sentence is appropriate.
One Episcopalian priest, who lobbied the California legislature last week, said the possibility of parole is about more than human rights: It affects souls of America's children.
James Tramel was imprisoned in California for the violent stabbing death of a homeless man in 1983 when he was 17. He was convicted of second-degree murder, but in 1983, neither California nor many other states allowed life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders.
He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison, a so-called indeterminate sentence that allows parole hearings and a possibility of release. He was released last year.
Tramel, who was ordained in prison and is now the rector of a San Francisco church, said children need a sense that society believes they can be reformed in order to seek redemption in the eyes of the law and God.
"If someone is confined to no hope of parole from prison ... he's going to forever be in a place that is violent. In that environment, people die a moral death and act out of the most basic survival instincts, which always comes out as aggressive animal behavior," Tramel said in a telephone interview with the Standard-Examiner.
"In the case of a juvenile ... it is my feeling that it is morally wrong for us as a society to sentence them to life without the possibility of parole. We lose nothing by offering them the hope, however slim, of redemption and reconciliation. ... For juveniles, a life without the possibility of parole is really a sentence of death without execution."
Tramel agrees that juveniles who commit heinous crimes most often should not be released.
However, he said, all of them, regardless of their crime, ought to be considered for release after years of incarceration.
Houston's mother, Carol Houston, agrees. She said Cameron, as she calls him, is confused and "feels like everyone hates him." Barely able to utter the words, she said the sentence her son received is just as cruel as executing him would be.
"If he's just going be stuck there without parole and not eligible for any rehabilitation programs whatsoever. ... I can't see the difference. He's just going to waste away," she said. "My family has still not stopped crying."
Tramel said his possibility of parole enabled him to enter programs that eventually led to his ordination as a priest.
'Mercy of the system'
State Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, who chairs the Utah Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee, said he feels life without parole sentences are merciful. Speaking to Houston's case, he said the young man is lucky he did not face capital punishment.
"He's very fortunate, I think, that he wasn't a few months older and subject to capital punishment," Bell said. "Therein is the mercy of the system."
Houston's mother disagrees. A prison official who testified at her son's trial said prisoners who have no option of parole are not eligible for rehabilitation programs, education programs and the like.
"That's not mercy," Carol Houston said. "There is no mercy in making a juvenile spend the rest of his life behind bars with no rehabilitation and no help, no nothing. Because he got the life without parole, he's not eligible for anything the Utah State Prison has to offer."
Davis County prosecutor Ryan Perkins said life without parole sentences offer mercy to someone other than the offender: the victim's family.
"The victim's family no longer has to participate in a process. It provides closure for the community and for the family," said Perkins, a prosecutor at Houston's sentencing hearing.
According to the 2005 Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International report, the idea of trying juveniles in adult courts is a new one. The idea caught on during a spike in juvenile crime in the 1980s and 1990s, the report states. In 1986, 965 gun-related homicides were committed by juveniles. By 1994, that number had jumped to 3,337.
By 1997, the report states, all but three states had changed laws to push more juveniles into adult court. However, the laws changed just as the crime wave declined. By 1997, youth gun-related homicides had dropped below 1970 levels.
Utah's "direct file" system was enacted during this era. The juvenile Court Act of 1996 laid out 10 crimes for which juveniles would automatically be tried as adults.
Bell said he believes kids who commit adult crimes should be punished like adults. He said public safety, deterrence and punishment justify the harsh penalty.
Weber State University professor and child psychologist Dr. Jim Bird has done evaluations of juvenile offenders for 25 years. He and others like him are brought in when there is a question of whether the youth should be tried as an adult.
Utah pushes too many juveniles into adult court, he said.
"Sometimes I feel that the system is very, very wrong in trying to adjudicate somebody as an adult when they have no business doing so," Bird said. "Sometimes it seems they (politicians and prosecutors) are doing that to look good in the public eye, to say, 'We're tough on crime.' "
Bird said Houston's case was appropriate to try in adult court, but he still has reservations about the sentence.
Politics best explain the existence of life without parole sentences for juveniles, he said, since what is known about children's brains does not. Stiffer penalties do not deter juveniles from committing crimes because they have poor impulse control and insight into their lives, he said.
"As our current system is, it is extremely expensive and does not serve anything besides revenge," Bird said. "It's not going to prevent people or youths from doing the crime. ... When people start saying 'never-ever-ever should this person see the light of day,' that's getting a little severe. You can't predict the future."
Mental disorders are more complicated to see and understand than, say, a brain tumor, Bird said, but their biological natures are the same. Both can cause individuals to commit crimes they would not otherwise commit. He said new research will turn up new causes for mental illness and new treatments or cures.
Houston has been diagnosed with depression throughout his life and obsessive-compulsive disorder during his trial.
Bird said he's not suggesting that psychology can cure Houston and therefore he should be released. But, he said, psychology can treat Houston, and for that reason, his release should at least be considered as the decades pass.
Perkins disagrees and said it's the privilege of the jury to predict if an individual could ever be reformed, and it ought to stay that way.
Predicting is something Carol Houston said no one can do.
"I don't think anybody can say where Cameron will be in 10 or 20 years down the road," she said. "It changes his whole life, being in prison."
In 2005, matters of child psychology, culpability and predicting the future of juvenile offenders prompted the Supreme Court to ban the possibility of executing them.
Hundreds of youth offenders, many who were by then adults still awaiting execution, were removed from death row as a result.
Houston's defense attorney, Rich Gallegos, said much of the rationale the court used to find executions of youth to be "cruel and unusual" also apply to life without parole.
"The troubling thing was, yeah, they didn't give them the death penalty, but they changed their sentences to life in prison without parole," he said. "That's troubling. I don't think we've gone far enough as far as juveniles are concerned."
Would it ever happen? Could the U.S. Supreme Court declare life without parole sentences for juvenile offenders unconstitutional?
Gallegos is doubtful, but hopeful. In determining whether executing juvenile offenders was "unusual," Gallegos said, the Supreme Court determined that more than half the states had already outlawed the practice.
Those states that hadn't, the court said, rarely used it anyway.
As it stands now, only eight states, maybe soon nine, outlaw life without parole for juveniles. That's not likely to change quickly, Perkins said.
"When you put a fine point on it, the people -- any person -- would be more comfortable making decisions about life without parole rather than taking a person's life," he said.
Nonetheless, Perkins and Gallegos agree the Supreme Court could someday nullify the more than 2,200 life without parole sentences held by juvenile offenders.
If that happens, Gallegos said, Houston's sentence likely would revert to 20 years to life in prison, the only other sentencing option jurors had to consider in his case.