Juvenile homicide has been “a red button issue” for decades in the United States [US] [1
]. When youths are involved in murder, the public frequently asks why did these kids engage in this behavior and what should be done with them. These questions are particularly acute when the killers are young teens, come from “good families”, and/or the crimes are particularly horrific involving vulnerable victims, multiple victims, and/or multiple offenders.
In the last 50 years, the United States has seen two periods when murders by juveniles have shown escalating trends. The first one occurred during the period 1960–1975, when arrests for juveniles for murder and nonnegligent homicide increased by 200%, by far outdistancing the increase in the juvenile population during this time [2
]. The second escalating trend in juvenile arrests for murders occurred between 1984 and 1993. During this period, the number of arrests of juveniles rose from 1004 to 3284. Moreover, the percentages of total homicide arrests involving juveniles more than doubled from 7.3% to 16.2% [4
]. Notably, this significant increase in juvenile involvement in murder occurred at a time when the juvenile population was decreasing. Experts warned the nation to expect a wave of young “superpredators” [5
] and forecasted that there would be a continued escalation in murders by juveniles in the forthcoming years when the juvenile population would be increasing [6
In response to this dramatic upswing, legislators across the U.S. passed legislation in the late 1980s and 1990s making it easier to transfer juveniles involved in serious crimes, including murder, to adult court. Juveniles who were convicted in the adult criminal justice system during that period, like their adult counterparts, were subjected to capital punishment, life without parole (LWOP), and long prison sentences [4
]. Over the next 30 years, many legal challenges to treating juveniles as adults, particularly when it pertained to the death sentence, were made in response to these policies with varying responses across the United States.
In the 21st century, the United States Supreme Court has heard five cases involving juveniles convicted in the adult system and has provided significant relief to juveniles sentenced to death and life without parole. The Court recognized in these cases that science had established that juveniles are developmentally different from adults. Because their brains are not fully developed, youths under 18 are less equipped to critically evaluate situations and tend to be more impulsive than adults. They are also more subject to peer pressure and limited in their ability to extricate themselves from unfavorable home or neighborhood environments.
In 2005, the Court held in Roper v. Simmons
that juveniles convicted of murder could not be sentenced to death under the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment [8
]. In 2010, in Graham v. Florida
, the Court applied the Eighth Amendment protection to juveniles sentenced to LWOP for nonhomicides, such as kidnapping and robbery, forbidding that sentence under these conditions [9
]. In 2012, the Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama
that sentencing juveniles convicted of murder to LWOP under mandatory sentencing statutes constituted cruel and unusual punishment and held that juveniles sentenced to LWOP under these circumstances were entitled to sentencing reviews in which factors in mitigation must be considered [10
]. In 2016, the Court held in Montgomery v. Louisiana
] that the Court’s ruling in Miller v. Alabama
applied retroactively. The Court’s decision in Montgomery
meant that more than 2000 prisoners sentenced to mandatory LWOP as juveniles were eligible for resentencing [11
It is important to note that the Supreme Court’s rulings in Miller v. Alabama
did not preclude a trial court from sentencing a juvenile convicted of murder to LWOP. However, based on the Court’s recognition of children’s diminished culpability and their potential to change in this case, as well as in the prior Roper
decisions, the Court believed that sentencing juveniles to LWOP would be uncommon. Justice Kagan explained, in writing the majority opinion, that it is extremely difficult to distinguish between a juvenile offender whose crime results from immaturity and the rare juvenile whose crime is indicative of an individual for whom growth and rehabilitation are not possible [10
In the 2016 case of Tatum v. Arizona
, the Supreme Court vacated the sentence of a juvenile homicide offender sentenced to LWOP even though the trial court judge noted the defendant’s age as a mitigating factor prior to imposing its sentence. The Court remanded the case back to the trial court, referring back to its language in Montgomery v. Louisiana.
The Court reaffirmed that LWOP sentences should be imposed upon only “those rare children whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility” [12
Interestingly, the Supreme Court’s rulings with respect to the sentencing of juveniles convicted of murder in adult court were decided as murders by juveniles in the U.S. were decreasing. The “bloodbath of violence” predicted for the 21st century by experts did not occur [13
]. In fact, arrests of juveniles for murder has shown a decreasing trend since 1994 when juveniles comprised 16.7% of all homicide arrests [4
]. Juveniles comprised 8%–10% of all homicide arrests from 2001 to 2010; from 2011 to 2018, they comprised less than 8% of all those arrested for murder [14
Despite the large decrease in the proportionate involvement by juveniles in arrests for murder, juvenile homicide remains a controversial issue in light of the Miller v. Alabama
decision. Legislators and courts across the U.S. have struggled to answer what sentence is appropriate for juvenile homicide offender (JHOs) who have previously been sentenced to LWOP for murder [16
] and what legal procedures must be put in place for a fair hearing [17
]. Appellate courts have had varying interpretations about whether the Miller decision applies to “de facto life without parole” sentences (e.g., 99-year sentence; three consecutive sentences of 30 years) or strictly to LWOP sentences [18
]. In March 2020, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving a juvenile murderer who was re-sentenced to LWOP by the trial court after his original LWOP sentence was vacated. In Davis v. Mississippi
, the question before the highest court, which will likely be heard and decided during the 2020–2021 term, is whether the Eighth Amendment requires the trial court to make a finding that the juvenile is “permanently incorrigible”, before the sentencing authority may impose a sentence of life without parole [20
Among the most pressing questions facing those who are tasked with the sentencing or re-sentencing of eligible JHOs, or their release in the case of parole boards, is how to decide whether the JHO can be safely released to the community at some future date or whether they are among the rarest of juvenile homicide offenders, “those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility” [10
], and are beyond rehabilitation. In recent years, scholars have investigated the recidivism of juvenile murderers looking for the correlates that distinguish JHOs who reoffend from those JHOs who do not. These studies provide valuable information about the characteristics of JHOs and their institutional experiences that are helpful in identifying risk.
To the author’s knowledge, there is no theory that specifically addresses juvenile homicide. Moreover, there is no study to date that has systematically explored with JHOs why they were involved in homicide. This study is a 35-year follow-up study of a subsample of male juvenile homicide offenders who were convicted of murder or attempted murder in the early 1980s. These “boys” were interviewed shortly after they were incarcerated in adult prison and again 35 years later by the author [21
]. At the time of the follow-up interview, the subjects, who were men in their early 50s, were asked why they were involved in criminal activity, including murder, as juveniles. After responding generally, they were asked approximately 20 questions concerning their motives or the circumstances operating at the time of the homicidal incident.
Although the formal testing of the specific theories of crime was beyond the scope of this study, the individual questions tapped broad tenets of psychological and sociological theories. These tenets were suggested in the initial interviews conducted by the author with the JHOs in the early 1980s. Thirty-five years later the participating adult JHOs were asked if broad constructs from seven sociological theories were factors in their criminal involvement: subcultural [22
], social disorganization [26
], strain [28
], social control [33
], labeling [34
], radical criminology [36
] and routine activities [38
]. The men were also asked questions relating to psychological concepts in five areas including perceptions, thoughts or beliefs, emotional states, traits, and effects on behavior. These psychological constructs, as will be illustrated later in this article, are associated with cognitive theory [39
], rational choice theory [40
], moral development theory [41
], trait theory [42
], and behavioral theory [44
This article examines the men’s responses in relation to their success or failure post-release. Asking individuals to reflect on their reasons for their involvement in murder as juveniles decades later may shed light on the factors that led them to participate in lethal behavior. In addition, their responses may provide insight into possible reasons that they reoffended. Accordingly, their answers may provide helpful information with respect to both prevention and intervention.
3. Materials and Methods
3.1. Sample Subjects
The sample subjects were part of Heide’s original study and were in their early 50s when interviewed a second time [4
]. The 35-year follow-up study was approved by the Institutional Review Board for the Protection of Human Subjects at the University of South Florida (Pro 00035814). As discussed in the literature review, 22 of the 44 original subjects who were alive and could be located consented to be interviewed [21
3.2. Follow-Up Interviews
The semi-structured interview covered their experiences in prison and if applicable, their post-release and recidivism experiences. In addition, subjects were asked about their thoughts regarding why they got into trouble as juveniles. They were first asked what were the most important reasons for which they got into trouble. Afterwards, they were asked separately if a specific motive or circumstances was “not a factor”, “somewhat of a factor”, or “a big factor”.
This study used a mixed methods approach; it was designed to foster both qualitative and quantitative analyses by including both open-ended and closed-ended questions. For example, the open-ended question regarding why the adult JHOs thought they got into trouble as juveniles lent itself well to qualitative analyses, which will be reported in a subsequent article. Qualitative analyses allowed for the richness of data to be explored in the context of overall themes for sample subjects. The follow-up questions inquiring about specific reasons, which is the focus of this article, permitted quantitative analyses to be performed using an ordinal scale: 1 = not a factor, 2 = somewhat of a factor, and 3 = a big factor. Quantitative analyses made it possible to rank in order the specific motives or circumstances to determine their relative influence from the perspective of the sample subjects.
Although it was beyond the scope of this research to test individual theories, the motives or circumstances, hereafter referred to as reasons, were based on theoretical tenets from major criminological theories. The JHOs were asked if these reasons played a role in them getting into trouble as juveniles. The reasons could be grouped broadly into psychological and sociological themes, although clearly some variables spanned both categories.
The psychological concepts included perceptions, thoughts or beliefs, traits, emotional states, and effects on behavior. This study investigated 12 psychological concepts related to perception (being high on alcohol/drugs), thoughts or beliefs (crime just happened, crime as exciting and fun, an easy way to make money, crime paid, crime was not really wrong), emotional states (a conflict that got out of hand, feeling down, being angry, wanting revenge), traits (impulsivity), and the effects on behavior (no consequences for criminal behavior). These five constructs, as depicted in Table 1
, are associated with five psychological theories, including cognitive theory [39
], rational choice theory [40
], moral development theory [41
], trait theory (e.g., [42
]), and behavioral theory [44
The sociological concepts, as described in Table 2
, included the societal influences that influenced a person to engage in criminal behavior. The nine sociological concepts explored in this study included tenets from subcultural theory (friends/peer pressure, gang involvement) [22
], social disorganization theory (crime routine in the neighborhood) [26
], strain theory (crime as a way to get material things one could not afford, needing money to buy drugs) [28
], social control theory (little or nothing left to lose due to lack of societal bonds) [33
], routine activities theory (opportunity to commit crime presented itself) [38
], labeling theory (being labeled by society as a “bad kid”) [34
], and radical criminology theory (a way to get back at society) [36
]. Gang involvement was removed from the analysis after it was found that involvement in gangs by the JHOs was little to non-existent and had no relation to the homicidal involvement.
With the removal of the gang variable, 20 variables were left. A few JHOs did not know or did not understand the meaning of four variables: opportunity presented itself (n = 1), crime just happened (n = 1), a conflict that got out of hand (n = 3), and little or nothing left to lose (n = 1). Their responses to these items were coded as missing data.
The interviews averaged 4.85 hours. In one case, the author was not able to cover the reasons for crime involvement due to time restrictions occasioned by the subject needing to get back to work. In a second case, the subject denied involvement in the murder and any other criminal activity. Accordingly, the final sample size consisted of 20 subjects.
3.3. Data Analysis
Demographic and prior record information is provided below for the 20 JHOs who participated in the follow-up study and provided information on the motives and circumstances involved in their criminal behavior, including murder or attempted murder. Thereafter, case-related characteristics are briefly presented, including the prison sentences imposed and the time served on the original murder charge. Post-release arrest data were reported for the 18 JHOs who were released. These 18 JHOs were categorized as successes or failures based on them being rearrested and returned to prison.
Cross-tabular analyses were used to test for significant differences in the variables related to the JHOs’ reflections on the reasons for their criminal behavior as juveniles and post-release outcome. The 20 variables were dichotomized to indicate that (1) the tenet was not a big factor, or (2) the tenet was somewhat of a factor or a big factor. The significance level was set at p < 0.05. The Phi statistic was used to measure the strength of the association; the chi square risk estimate (odds ratio) was reported when the findings were significant. SPSS version 25 was used to conduct the analyses.
To the author’s knowledge, this research is the first follow-up recidivism study of juvenile homicide offenders that included interviews with juvenile homicide offenders three decades after their involvement in the murder or attempted murder. At the time of the author’s second interview with the study participants, the JHOs were approximately 35 years older and were men in their early 50s with far more life experience. Moreover, this study is the only one to date that asked JHOs to reflect on the reasons that they engaged in criminal behavior that led to fatal or near fatal outcomes for their victims. Although the sample size was relatively small, several important findings emerged that warrant discussion particularly in the context of theoretical explanations for the JHOs’ criminal involvement.
One factor stood out as the most important reason that the JHOs got into trouble. Seventy (70%) percent of the men identified friends/peer pressure as a big factor in their criminal involvement with 20% more indicating that it was somewhat of a factor. More than 50% of the JHOs rated as big factors getting high, the crime just happened and crime was routine in their neighborhood; when the category is broadened to include somewhat of a factor, the percentages rise to between 69% and 80%.
Although this study was not designed to test specific theories of crime, these four variables include both sociological and psychological tenets that are consistent with subcultural theory (delinquent peers) [22
], social disorganization theory (crime-ridden neighborhoods) [26
], and developmental psychology (taking responsibility) [41
]. Consistently with the subcultural and social disorganization theories, the findings paint a picture of teens “hanging out” and getting high in neighborhoods where crime is routine. Although using drugs and alcohol is typically a social activity for juveniles, these substances have known psychological as well as biological effects that are often amplified in teens: they impair judgment, affect perception, and may have a disinhibiting effect [62
]. Clearly, crime does not “just happen”. However, when individuals are high, impaired by drugs and/or alcohol, associating with delinquent peers, and lacking in maturity, it may indeed seem that the crime just happened.
These explanations on the surface may suggest that the adult JHOs have externalized blame for their conduct by attributing their criminal involvement to social processes, peers, crime-ridden neighborhoods, and drugs. For some study participants, the failure to take responsibility for their behavior as juveniles is accurate and remains true 35 years after their homicidal behavior. For other adult JHOs, it is an indication of their insight into the reasons that they got into trouble, including murder, as youths. This issue will be systematically explored in a forthcoming manuscript that will analyze the data pertinent to the JHOs’ perceptions regarding their accountability for their homicidal involvement and their feelings about the victim(s) at two points in time: when interviewed as adolescents in prison and as adults in their early 50s. These data will provide information about three traits related to psychopathy, namely the failure to accept responsibility, the lack of remorse or guilt, and callousness/lack of empathy for the victim [43
]. Examining data over time allows a preliminary assessment of the stability of these traits when present in JHOs.
Five factors were rarely identified by the men as big factors in their getting into trouble as juveniles: getting back at society, criminal behavior as not really wrong, not having consequences for prior criminal behavior, getting back at someone, and needing money for alcohol or drugs. The variables that were least likely to be endorsed as explanations tapped one concept in sociological theories, three in psychological theories, and one that spanned both. Getting back at society is consistent with radical criminology theory [36
]. In contrast, believing that the crime was not really wrong, engaging in crime because of a lack of previous consequences for one’s behavior, and getting back at someone are consistent with psychological explanations, including moral development theory [41
], cognitive theory [39
], and behavioral theory [44
]. Needing money for drugs can be an indicator of strain theory [31
], behavioral theory (negative reinforcement to terminate an aversive physical and/or psychological condition, or positive reinforcement to bring on a positive state) [44
]. To wit, few JHOs indicated that they participated in crime because they wanted to get back against society, because they did not see criminal behavior as really wrong, or because their criminal behavior had not been sanctioned in the past. Their remarks suggested that when “they did wrong,” they were not thinking in societal terms, knew their behavior was wrong, and had received some sanctions from the juvenile justice system in the past. Few men indicated that they engaged in criminal behavior because they wanted to get back at someone, that is, to seek revenge. Interestingly, only 25% said that they engaged in criminal behavior to get money for drugs or alcohol. Many said that they had access to drugs through friends or made money by working.
Only one third of the adult JHOs identified that they “acted impulsively” as a big factor in their criminal behavior. However, more than half (55%) said it was somewhat of a factor or a big factor in their criminal involvement. Impulsivity is another trait of psychopathy [43
] and is a main factor in the self-control theory of crime, often referred to as the general theory of crime [63
]. Interestingly, of the eight JHOs who were released and who identified acting impulsively as at least somewhat of a factor in their criminal behavior, four were successes and four were failures post-release. Clearly, no conclusions can be based on this small number of cases and more research on impulsivity and self-control with respect to JHOs is needed.
Given the small sample size, it is particularly meaningful to find that two variables, both from sociological explanations of crime, increased the likelihood of post-release failure. JHOs who lived in crime-ridden neighborhoods (social disorganization) [26
] and who engaged in criminal behavior because they perceived that an opportunity was available to them (routine activities theory) [38
] were approximately 20 and 22.50 times more likely to be arrested post release and returned to prison, respectively. These findings are particularly illuminated by a subsequent analysis that found that JHOs who lived in neighborhoods where crime was routine prior to their arrest for murder or attempted murder were 20 times more likely to return to these neighborhoods than JHOs who did not grow up in this type of environment; JHOs who returned to the old neighborhoods were 13.5 times more likely to be sent back to prison [21
Limitations of the Study and Directions for Future Research
The qualitative and quantitative nature of this 35-year follow-up study of juvenile homicide offenders’ reasons for involvement in criminal and lethal behavior was a noteworthy aspect of this research. The sample size of 20 is impressive for a study that spanned three decades and included half of the original sample subjects who were living and could be located. However, with that said, it was still small. The statistical power for the three chi square analyses that were significant was between 0.70 and 0.74, below the desired 0.80 power. Given the small sample size, the power achieved is unsurprising and was fairly close to the power standard preferred. Ideally, future studies should have larger samples, preferably of 100 subjects or more, to permit statistical analyses on multiple variables simultaneously.
This research was unique in that it asked JHOs as middle-aged men to reflect on their reasons for engaging in criminal and violent behavior as juveniles. It explored tenets of theoretical explanations of crime by asking the JHOs about their reasons for lawbreaking behavior. It would be valuable to do a more formal testing of the psychological and sociological theories given these preliminary findings. This study of JHOs was also unique in the length of its follow-up period. Clearly, a shorter follow-up period might be desirable, considering that 10 of the 59 sample subjects died within the 35-year period. A 20-year follow-up period would allow for maturational changes between those released before age 25 and those released after that time to be assessed in post-release success. A follow-up period of this length would enable the replication of findings that JHOs who served longer sentences are more likely to succeed than those who served shorter sentences [21
Interestingly, a 20-year sentence is recommended by developmental psychologist, James Garbarino, who has evaluated dozens of JHOs who were initially sentenced to LWOP following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama
]. Based on his experience, Garbarino maintains that it takes this amount of time for the JHO to mature to the point that he is ready to recognize the need to change and to commit to, and engage in, a serious path to rehabilitation [64
These findings, when taken as a group, clearly support the reasoning of the United States Supreme Court with respect to juvenile homicide offenders. As the Court noted, juveniles are much more likely than adults to be influenced by their peers and to be affected by the neighborhoods in which they life. Moreover, the results have direct implications for both prevention and intervention. They suggest that juveniles from crime-ridden neighborhoods need more adult supervision, safe places to go that provide alternatives to the streets such as a teen or recreational center, prosocial activities to engage in, and mentors. Parents, schools, churches, and other community organizations (e.g., Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the YMCA, Boys and Girls Club) need to help youths to take responsibility and to see themselves as accountable, and to provide evidence-based drug education programs.
JHOs in prison should be discouraged from returning to the old neighborhoods, particularly if their former homes were in communities where crime was common, and from associating with their old friends. They should be helped to find alternative placements in transitional housing in locales where they do not have friends involved in lawbreaking and using drugs. During their incarceration, JHOs should participate in re-entry programming that includes decision making and accountability. In addition, participation in evidence-based drug education programs should be mandatory if the individual used drugs prior to their confinement in prison.
Programs like the one suggested do exist. In Florida, the Community Transition Program (CTP) located at the Everglades Correctional Institution in Miami has a Lifers’ Program. Most of the men in this program have been convicted of murder; all have served at least 20 years in prison. Inmates are sent to this program, which has been run by Dr. Regina Shern for more than two decades, by the Florida Commission on Offender Review, formerly the Florida Parole Commission. Over its 24-year history, approximately 400 men have been released from CTP. The program has a 96% success rate. In closing, it needs to be remembered that some JHOs do succeed. The challenge is to provide the assistance to help others do the same. At the same time, research is critically needed to determine if it is indeed possible to identify, in the words of the United States Supreme Court, “those rare children whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility” [12