Amanda Paulson

Should Children Be Sentenced to Life?

How should a society treat its youngest criminal offenders? And the families of victims of those offenders?

Half a dozen states are now weighing these questions anew, as they consider whether to ban life sentences for juveniles that don't include a option for parole -- and whether those now serving such sentences should have a retroactive shot at parole.

Here in Illinois, proposed legislation would give 103 people -- most convicted of unusually brutal crimes -- a chance at parole hearings, while outlawing the sentence for future young perpetrators.

The proposal has victims' families up in arms, angry that killers they had been told were in prison for life might be given a shot at release and that they'd need to regularly attend hearings in the future, reliving old traumas, to try to ensure that these criminals remain behind bars.

Advocates of legislation, meanwhile, both in Illinois and elsewhere, note that the US is the only country in the world with anyone -- nearly 2,400 across the nation -- serving such a severe sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile. They criticize the fact that the sentence is often mandatory, part of a system devoid of leniency for a teenager's lack of judgment, or hope that youth can be reformed.

"Kids should be punished, and held accountable. The crimes we're talking about are very serious crimes," says Alison Parker, deputy director of the US program of Human Rights Watch and author of a report on the issue. "But children are uniquely able to rehabilitate themselves, to grow up and to change. A life-without-parole sentence says they're beyond repair, beyond hope."

The sentence is automatic for certain crimes in more than half of all states, part of a wave of "get tough" laws aimed at cracking down on rising crime rates during the 1980s and '90s. Which means judges often have little to no discretion when they mete out punishment. In many instances, they are prohibited from considering age or even whether the juvenile was the one who pulled the trigger. About a quarter of the juveniles serving life without parole sentences nationally were convicted of what is known as "felony murder," says Ms. Parker. They participated in a felony in which murder was committed, but they weren't the ones who did the actual killing.

In Illinois, that list includes Marshan Allen, a 15-year-old who accompanied an older brother and some friends on a drug-related mission, and says he didn't know they were going to kill several people.

In California, another state considering doing away with the sentence, it includes Anthony, a 16-year-old painting graffiti with a friend when the friend produced a gun and decided to rob an approaching group of teenagers. His friend pulled the trigger, but Anthony -- who turned down a plea bargain because he couldn't imagine paying for a crime he didn't feel he'd committed -- got a life-without-parole sentence.

"There are people in prison for crimes they committed as juveniles that should never see the light of day," says Rich Klawiter, a partner at the law firm DLA Piper and part of the Illinois Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Children, which produced a report on the issue last month and advocates reform. "But those that show themselves worthy of redemption ought to be given an opportunity before a parole board."

The frequent citing of cases like Allen's bothers supporters of the sentence, who say such examples are hardly representative. Generally, the mandate is saved for such extreme offenses as multiple murders, killing of a police officer, aggravated sexual assault, and murder of a child.

"These guys are the worst of the worst," says Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, whose pregnant sister and brother-in-law were murdered by a 16-year-old in their Winnetka, Ill., townhome in 1990. She acknowledges automatic sentencing has probably punished a few juveniles unfairly, but notes that such individuals can always appeal for clemency. What she doesn't understand is bringing offenders back for hearings that, in her mind, would only unearth the past for the families of victims who thought they'd seen their loved ones' killers put away forever.

Ms. Bishop-Jenkins and her sister, Jeanne Bishop, are both prominent victim activists against the death penalty, and helped in the case that got the juvenile death penalty overturned by the Supreme Court three years ago. Now, they both say, they feel betrayed by the same allies with whom they fought against the death penalty, who never sought their input on this issue.

"Once you say this person could get out someday through this mechanism, you've just placed a crushing burden on the hearts and minds of the victims' families," says Jeanne Bishop, a Cook County public defender who has also defended juveniles. She and her sister both support getting rid of the mandatory sentencing and giving judges more discretion, but worry that in all the talk of the human rights of juvenile offenders, the rights of victims are being forgotten.

The current legislation in Illinois is unlikely to go anywhere, with its key sponsor backing away last week and saying more time is needed to dialogue with victims. Reform advocates hope to have new legislation introduced in the near future. Colorado outlawed juvenile life without parole in 2006, and legislation is pending in Michigan, Florida, Nebraska, and California, while a few other states are experiencing grass-roots efforts.

Some activists against the sentence say they hope they can work with victims' families to take their concerns into account even as they do away with the sentence. In Michigan, where a set of bills is before both the Senate and the House, activists have had some success building dialogue with victims, says Deborah LaBelle, a human rights attorney based in Ann Arbor and director of the ACLU's Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative.

"We need to allow both voices to be heard," says Ms. LaBelle. But she feels strongly that the sentence is inappropriate for youth. "As every parent knows and as every social scientist understands, this is a time of ill-thought-out, impulsive lack of judgment, problematic years … To throw them away and say you're irredeemable as a child is a disturbing social concept."

How the Mountains of Appalachia Are Disappearing

For a practice that has drastically changed the topography of Appalachia, most Americans -- even those who consider themselves environmentalists -- know surprisingly little about mountaintop mining.

The technique, in which the top of a mountain is literally blasted off and dumped into the surrounding valleys to unearth the valuable coal underneath, has leveled mountain peaks, destroyed more than 1.5 million acres of hardwood forest, and buried more than 700 miles of streams.

The reason this practice remains unchecked has a lot to do with where it takes place. In his new book, Coal River, Michael Shnayerson aims to draw attention to this environmental battle raging across one of America's poorest regions.

"This could never happen in rural Connecticut, Maine, northern California, Washington State, or other places where such devastation would stir outcry, and people with money and power would stop it," he writes in the book's prologue. "But Appalachia is a land unto itself, cut off by its mountains from the east and Midwest. Its people are for the most part too poor and too cowed after a century of harsh treatment by King Coal to think they can stop their world from being blasted away."

In "Coal River," Shnayerson focuses on one valley in southern West Virginia and the battle raging between many of its residents and Massey Energy (the largest of West Virginia's coal companies and the most egregious offender both in terms of the environment and its workers' well-being) and the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that issues mining permits.

The book reads in large part like a courtroom drama as activists file lawsuit after lawsuit in attempts to make changes not just to individual mines or permits, but to the whole mountaintop mining industry. It's not easy to make lawsuits and appeals scintillating reading, especially those that involve complex mining regulations and technical terminology. But Shnayerson does a valiant job, and for anyone remotely interested in the region, the coal industry, or the devastation being caused by mountaintop mining both to Appalachia's complex forest and stream ecology as well as to its rich culture, his book is gripping.

Real-life villains and heroes

It helps that, like any good narrative, there are clear heroes and villains. In this case, the story's main villain is Don Blankenship, Massey Energy's formidable CEO. Blankenship is a colorful character, with a hardscrabble childhood in the tiny West Virginia town of Delorme. He made good on his own and ended up, according to Shnayerson, adopting his mother's relentless work ethic and lack of sympathy for those who didn't work as hard.

In the vivid portrait Shnayerson paints, Blankenship has a tendency toward micromanagement and issues harsh edicts to employees, whether managers at Massey or his overworked maid, who aren't performing up to his standard. He's ruthless when it comes to union workers -- he wants them out -- and employees looking for workman's compensation after being injured on the job. He's also determined to wield power in politics as well, pouring millions of dollars into defeating a state pension proposal, unseating a justice on West Virginia's Supreme Court of Appeals who had often ruled in favor of miners suing for disability payments, and (unsuccessfully) influencing the makeup of the state legislature.

If Blankenship is the most colorful villain, the Army Corps of Engineers comes across as only slightly less evil with its routine failure to conduct environmental impact assessments or ensure that the proposed mines will minimize environmental damage and follow federal laws.

Most successfully, Shnayerson builds his stories around several real heroes, an underfunded lawyer and residents who -- despite their lack of money, power, or formal education -- do everything they can to fight back as they see their land and towns destroyed. Judy Bonds, a fiery activist in her 50s who continually takes on anyone in her path, is one of the most memorable. The daughter and granddaughter of coal miners, Judy grew up foraging for ramps, canning green tomatoes, and feasting on hog and whatever else her father could hunt in the surrounding woods. Her activism is fueled by the fact that Massey mining forced her out of the hollow where her family had lived for generations.

Ed Wiley, bothered by the worsening health of his granddaughter and many other students at the Marsh Fork Elementary school (situated directly beneath a coal impoundment containing toxic slurry and less than 300 feet from a coal-storage silo), is another. After being repeatedly rebuffed by West Virginia's governor in his efforts to get a new school, Ed walked nearly 500 miles to Washington, D.C., to get an audience with Sen. Robert Byrd. The senator listened compassionately but ultimately said he was unable to help with what he saw as essentially a state issue.

Narrative grounded in research

Shnayerson's portraits of these and other residents, along with Joe Lovett, the underdog lawyer who repeatedly wins battles in the state federal court only to have them struck down in the more conservative Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, help keep "Coal River" from being just a polemic. Its sympathies may be clear, but the book is grounded in solid research and gains momentum as the courtroom victories and losses of its protagonists play out.

In the end, despite finishing with a major victory for Joe and the hope that this time, perhaps, the ruling will be held up on appeal, the book's message is a bleak one when it comes to the damage already wreaked on a beautiful corner of Appalachia. Shnayerson hopes to ensure that such destruction is, at least, not ignored by the rest of the country.

Are We Headed Back to the Era of Segregation?

At one time, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina was a model of court-ordered integration.

Today, nearly a decade after a court struck down its racial-balancing busing program, the school district is moving in the opposite direction. More than half of its elementary schools are either more than 90 percent black or 90 percent white.

"Charlotte is rapidly resegregating," says Carol Sawyer, a parent and member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Equity Committee.

It's a trend that is occurring around the country and is even more pronounced than expected in the wake of court cases dismantling both mandated and voluntary integration programs, a new report says. The most segregated schools, according to the report, which documents desegregation trends, are in big cities of the Northeast and Midwest. The South and West -- and rural areas and small towns generally -- offer minority students a bit more diversity.

Suburbs of large cities, meanwhile, are becoming the new frontier: areas to which many minorities are moving.

These places still have a chance to remain diverse communities but are showing signs of replicating the segregation patterns of the cities themselves.

"It's getting to the point of almost absolute segregation in the worst of the segregated cities - within one or two percentage points of what the Old South used to be like," says Gary Orfield, codirector of the Civil Rights Project and one of the study's authors. "The biggest metro areas are the epicenters of segregation. It's getting worse for both blacks and Latinos, and nothing is being done about it."

About one-sixth of black students and one-ninth of Latino students attend what Mr. Orfield calls "apartheid schools," at least 99 percent minority. In big cities, black and Latino students are nearly twice as likely to attend such schools. Some two-thirds of black and Latino students in big cities attend schools with less than 10 percent white students; in rural areas, about one-seventh of black and Latino students do. Although the South was the region that originally integrated the most successfully, it's beginning to resegregate, as in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district.

While resegregation has been taking place for some time, Orfield says the latest numbers are worrisome both for the degree to which they show the trend is occurring and in light of the US Supreme Court's most recent decision on the issue last June, which struck down several voluntary integration programs and made it more difficult for districts that want to work at desegregating schools to do so.

"If you [as a district] are going to ask your lawyer what's the easiest thing to do, it's to just stop trying to do anything," Orfield explains. "That's a recipe for real segregation."

Not everyone feels that way. Some groups applauded the Supreme Court's decision last summer as another step toward taking race out of school admission policies and allowing parents to send their kids to the schools most convenient for them. If schools start reflecting neighborhood makeup - which often means nearly all-white or all-minority - that doesn't have to matter, they say.

"Segregation means people are being deliberately assigned to schools based on skin color," says Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Falls Church, Va. "If it simply reflects neighborhoods, then it's not segregation."

Mr. Clegg questions some of the resegregation research, noting that the percentage of white students in schools is often going down simply because they're a decreasing portion of the population. He also quibbles with the notion that an all-black, all-Hispanic, or all-white school is necessarily a bad thing.

"I don't think that the education that you get hinges on the color of the person sitting next to you in the classroom," Clegg says. "What educators should focus on is improving schools."

That sounds great in theory, say some experts, but the fact is that segregated schools tend to be highly correlated with such things as school performance and the ability to attract teachers.

"Once you separate kids spacially from more privileged kids, they tend to not get the same things," says Amy Stuart Wells, an education professor at Columbia University's Teachers College in New York. "And we need to start thinking about how a school that's racially isolated can be preparing students for this global society we live in."

Still, many of the programs that worked to achieve integration - such as busing - have been highly unpopular over the years. And in big cities, real integration is often virtually impossible: Many cities have largely minority populations, and the districts don't extend to the suburbs.

Suburbs, though, offer potential. The Civil Rights Project report noted that big-city suburbs educate 7.9 million white students along with 2.1 million blacks and 2.9 million Latinos. "This is the new frontier for thinking about how to make diverse schools work," says Professor Wells.

But so far, the data for suburbs are not encouraging, showing emerging segregation. Some integration advocates say this shows a need for more diversity training for teachers and students and for policies that encourage integrated housing, not just schools.

"Each affects the other," says Erica Frankenberg, the co-author on the Civil Rights Project study. "Unless we think about this jointly, we're probably not going to be able to create stable racial integrated neighborhoods and schools."

How To Prevent An Illiterate Workforce

US workers may be significantly less literate in 2030 than they are today.

The reason: Most baby boomers will be retiring and a large wave of less-educated immigrants will be moving into the workforce. This downward shift in reading and math skills suggests a huge challenge for educators and policymakers in the future, according to a new report from the Educational Testing Service (ETS).

If they can't reverse the trend, then it could spell trouble for a large swath of the labor force, widen an already large skill gap, and shrink the middle class.

"There is no time that I can tell you in the last hundred years" where literacy and numeracy have declined, says Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston and one of the report's authors. "But if you don't change outcomes for a wide variety of groups, this is the future we face."

The decline in literacy is one of the more startling projections in a report that examines what it calls a "perfect storm" of converging factors and how those trends are likely to play out if left unchecked.

The three factors identified are: a shifting labor market increasingly rewarding education and skills, a changing demographic that include a rapid-growing Hispanic population, and a yawning achievement gap, particularly along racial and socioeconomic lines, when it comes to reading and math.

The individual trends have been identified before, but this study makes an effort to examine their combined effects, and to project a disturbing future, including a sharply declining middle class in addition to the lost ground in literacy.

"We have the possibility of transforming the American dream into the American tragedy," says Irwin Kirsch, a senior research director at ETS and the lead author of the study.

Ringing the alarm

He and the other researchers emphasize they're not saying the US is in any danger of collapse, or even that this grim scenario will come true. What they hope to do, they say, is call attention to urgent issues that affect not just many Americans' lifestyle, but the sort of democracy based on an informed middle class that the country was founded on.

"I hope it's viewed as an important warning sign," says Kurt Landgraf, president of ETS. "It's important for society to take notice of what's going on here in a macro way."

One factor that's been gaining increasing attention lately is the changing economic rewards in an economy in which demand for manufacturing and lower skilled labor is declining. It's become tougher for workers without higher education -- or higher cognitive skills -- to get the sort of job that can support a family.

But exacerbating the changes such an economic shift is causing are demographic factors, researchers say. Baby boomers are retiring and being replaced by less-skilled workers. A combination of immigration and population growth means that the share of the population that is Hispanic is expected to grow from 14 percent in 2005 to more than 20 percent by 2030. More than half of the immigrant Hispanics lack a high school diploma.

"Many immigrants enter [the US] without being able to read or speak English," says Mr. Landgraf. "Instead of forcing people to hide from the government infrastructure, we should be finding ways to include them in our society and help them bridge the language gap."

Turning to education

He and others suggest increasing attention and resources to early childhood education, to the social factors that affect young children, to continuing adult education, and to programs that keep kids from dropping out of school and address the achievement gap.

Some groups are already focusing on the issues, occasionally in surprising political coalitions.

Later this month, the US Chamber of Commerce -- along with the liberal Center for American Progress and the conservative American Enterprise Institute -- plans to release a report card grading states on their K-12 education in nine categories, together with an action agenda, says Arthur Rothkopf, a senior vice president at the Chamber of Commerce.

Solidarity with the Center for American Progress is unusual for his agency, he notes, "but we have to get the message out."

Like the ETS researchers, Mr. Rothkopf is particularly concerned about the growing mismatch of skills and workplace demands, and what that means for Americans' standard of living.

"We need to really rethink what we do," he says. "Hopefully this report among others will continue the drum beat."

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