Child Offenders Can Recover


Caril Ann Fugate following her arrest in 1958 at age 14. Register file photo.

The Des Moines Register this week detailed the story of Caril Ann Fugate, a 14-year-old girl whose 18-year-old boyfriend involved her in a sensationalized series of crimes in Nebraska in 1958. Despite being sentenced to life in prison, Caril became a model prisoner and her sentence was commuted. She was released after serving 18 years, worked as a medical aide, has never run afoul of the law, and is now a married retiree.

Caril Fugate in 1972.

Caril Fugate’s story of rehabilitation and redemption demonstrates children’s enormous potential for growth and change. In abolishing the death penalty for children, the United States Supreme Court observed in Roper v. Simmons that, because children are still developing, “it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character.” The Court struck down life-without-parole sentences for children convicted of nonhomicide offenses in 2010.

In two cases now pending before the Supreme Court, Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, EJI is arguing that sentencing a child to life imprisonment without parole is unconstitutional because children are not yet developed and have a greater capacity for reform. Because children will change as they grow up, and almost all will grow out of criminal behavior, EJI argues that sentencers cannot reliably make a judgment at the outset that a young offender is never fit to reenter society.

The Supreme Court will decide Miller and Jackson within the next few weeks.