Today’s New York Times Sunday magazine contains a fascinating article about Greg Ousley, a 33-year-old Indiana man who is in prison for killing his parents when he was 14 years old. Journalist Scott Anderson reports that Greg is serving a 60-year sentence, with no possibility of parole until 2019. However, Greg’s appeals lawyer is pursuing a sentence modification procedure, which could potentially allow him to be released early if none of the victims’ next of kin object. Of the seven relatives in question – his two sisters and five aunts and uncles – only one aunt objects to the early parole. This is enough to derail the process for now, despite the fact that prison officials think Greg has been rehabilitated since he has been a model prisoner for years and has earned both a high school equivalency certificate and a college degree (magna cum laude) while in prison.
As Anderson points out in his article, parricide is a fairly rare crime, and the killing of both parents is rarer still. Most of the cases seem to involve severe physical or sexual abuse of the child-turned-killer. Greg Ousley’s case is more nuanced. He appears not to have been severely abused, although his parents clearly had issues and few would nominate them for parents of the year – at least if Greg’s version is to be believed. Greg’s dad had a fairly serious drinking problem, his mother (who had been orphaned at a young age) had abandonment issues and was prone to rages in which she verbally abused her children. Apparently neither parent was good at verbally expressing either love or empathy. Greg was angry at his parents for the way they treated him, and he was especially angry at his mother after he found her in the garage kissing his father’s best friend. Greg was also severely depressed. Both a middle school teacher and Greg’s mother seem to have recognized this, but their somewhat modest efforts to address the issue with Greg were rebuffed, and they did not pursue the conversation further. At some point Greg decided to kill his parents, he wrote about it in his journal, he told his friends that he would kill his parents, and ultimately he shot both his father and mother at point-blank range with a 12-gauge shotgun. Ironically, he did it on a night that he now remembers as a night when his parents reached out to him in a positive way, and the three had spent the evening playing guitar and singing at home.
Greg confessed almost immediately after a pathetic effort to make the crime look like a home invasion. Two days later, he was waived into adult court without even having a preliminary psychiatric exam. He accepted a plea of guilty but mentally ill, and was sentenced to two consecutive 30-year prison terms despite the fact that three psychological experts hired by the defense recommended against mere incarceration, recommending instead that Greg receive extensive treatment. The prosecutor argued that Greg should get a severe sentence to deter other juveniles. The prosecutor’s argument carried the day: Greg has been locked up in adult prison, with virtually no treatment. He is sorry for his crimes now, and the article explores the question of whether that is enough to justify an early release.
A book could be written about this case, and for all I know Scott Anderson is already writing it. But for right now, a couple of things are food for thought.
First of all, why have so many people in this country bought into the “lock them up and throw away the key” mentality with juveniles convicted of serious crimes?
My own hunch is that this is partly an overreaction to the real and perceived failures of the juvenile court system. Until the early 20th century, juveniles who committed crimes were routinely tossed into jail with adult offenders. This did not go well. The youngsters were not only subjected to violence from the adult prisoners, they were also initiated into the adult criminal subculture. The juvenile court system was supposed to take account of the immaturity of the young offenders and to offer them treatment and rehabilitation so that they would go on to live law-abiding adult lives. Unfortunately, this has not worked out as well as originally hoped. Lighter sentences were perceived by the public as an ineffective slap on the wrist for young offenders, who often re-offended upon release. Some have argued that that the system was designed to rehabilitate young hoodlums for reckless or inappropriate behavior such as joyriding or underage drinking, but is not appropriate for more serious crimes like rape and murder. Unfortunately the legal response was not to make the sentences slightly longer or the psychiatric treatment much more intense; the response was to waive younger and younger offenders into adult courts, and to sentence them to long terms in adult prisons where there is little psychiatric treatment and virtually no real effort at rehabilitating them for release into society. But as Anderson points out in his article, when a kid is imprisoned at 14 or 16, even a long sentence does not preclude eventual release into society. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to make some honest efforts at rehabilitation?
Another answer to why so many people want to permanently remove convicted juveniles from society is that people think that these kids are hopelessly beyond redemption. But scientific and sociological research does not support this belief. Instead, there is good reason to believe that if the kids are in the throes of mental illness or under the influence of drugs while committing a crime, intensive treatment has at least a good chance at rehabilitating them. Even where drugs or mental illness are not the immediate trigger, other research shows that the brains of children and adolescents are undeveloped, particularly with respect to functions involving self-control, impulsivity or ability to comprehend consequences of actions. Therefore, if the youngsters are offered treatment and education as their brains complete development, it seems that rehabilitation is a strong possibility.
This brings me to my second question: why are so many people convinced that people like Greg are intrinsically evil or beyond redemption? One of the most shocking things about Anderson’s article is the large percentage of the 589 readers posting comments labeling Greg a hopeless “psychopath” or “sociopath.” A couple of commenters suggested that he should have been executed (at age 14!) instead of being sentenced to a long prison term. In a response of his own, Anderson pointed out that the article gives no evidence that Greg lacks remorse, empathy or a sense of right and wrong, and therefore the armchair diagnoses misuse the term “psychopath.” Anderson hits the nail on the head, in my opinion, when he further suggests that this labeling may have to do with a deep-seated need to see a criminal as “the Other” so that we can believe that he deserves no help and we can also believe that we ourselves could never harbor such dark impulses.
Frankly, I find it troubling to live in a society that pays lip-service to the notion of rehabilitation of criminals, but will only fund retribution. I find it even more troubling that people who are unwilling to support therapy to rehabilitate juvenile offenders are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per offender to keep them locked up forever. Unlike many of the commenters to this article, I do not think that juvenile killers are always the worst type of threat to this society: sometimes I think that people who view them as sub-human throwaways are a bigger threat to American ideals.