Experts debate rehabilitation for teen
Before he raped and strangled a 9-year-old
Philadelphia girl, Kevin Hughes was a tyrannized child who needed help.
His drug-addicted and mentally ill mother used him as a sexual plaything
when she was around and left him to wander the streets begging for food
when she wasn't.
The many men in his mother's life also sexually abused Kevin and taught
him that women were to be subjugated. Some of them beat him savagely
while his mother stood by watching. Sometimes she laughed.
After Kevin, who was 16 at the time, killed Rochelle Graham and burned
her body in an abandoned house, the community's thirst for vengeance
overwhelmed any inclination to sift through the wreckage of his
childhood or figure out how he'd become such a monster. There was no
discussion of how the criminal justice system might punish him and
address his stark pathologies. So, in a matter of months, he was tried,
convicted and sent to death row.
That was in 1981. Last month, in a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court
ruled that Kevin and 71 other juvenile killers can't be executed,
opening the door to a broader debate about the nature of juvenile
If execution is improper, experts say, why is life without parole — the
penalty these 72 killers now face — any more appropriate? If, as the
court said, juvenile offenders are fundamentally different from adults,
why shouldn't these youthful murderers be offered a promise of
“The whole idea of juvenile justice revolves around the idea that we're
dealing with fixable people, kids who are still developing, but the
death penalty made that idea irrelevant,” said Stephen Harper, a public
defender who teaches on juvenile justice at the University of Miami.
“Now that execution is out of the picture, I think there are other
issues we can confront. Can adolescent killers be rehabilitated? And
should that be the goal?”
Charles Hobson, an attorney with the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation,
a victims advocate in California, said there's more to it than that.
“Punishment limits crime with an appropriate
expenditure of resources, and people understand that,” he said. “Other
things may help offenders, but they won't necessarily keep the public
safer, and that's a problem.”
If policymakers blanch at the notion of re-thinking juvenile justice, it
may be because of this dramatic tension that's developed between those
who see young killers as treatable and those who consider them doomed
souls in need of perpetual punishment.
The juvenile justice system in this country evolved around the notion of
rehabilitation and treatment, but a surge in adolescent crime during the
early 1980s inspired a crackdown. States began narrowing the age range
for offenders who'd be considered juveniles, virtually eliminating older
teens from the category. Judges were stripped of much of the discretion
they had to treat juveniles differently, with many states adopting
mandatory minimum sentences.
Youthful killers have almost universally been kicked up into the adult
system, making it a foregone conclusion that the paths of their lives
would be set solely by their crimes and without any consideration for
the frequently awful circumstances that surrounded their childhoods.
The death penalty was never common in this country for juveniles, and by
the time the high court eliminated it last month, most states had
already turned their backs on it. But juvenile justice experts say it
remained a terrible distraction from a discussion of broader options for
young killers. The argument, they say, was too often about whether life
without parole or death was appropriate. Treatment wasn't considered.
“It was definitely in the way,” said Marsha Levick, the legal director
of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center, referring to the death
penalty. “Now that you can't execute juveniles anymore, it may give us a
That prospect isn't just because of the court's
decision in Roper v. Simmons. It's also because of the reasoning Justice
Anthony Kennedy used in writing the majority opinion in the 5-4 case,
which hints at the potential — and perhaps the overwhelming need — for
Quoting from groundbreaking studies of the adolescent brain, Kennedy
declared that juveniles lacked the maturity and sense of responsibility
that would allow them to be considered “the most deserving of
execution,” which is the court's standard for capital punishment. He
said they're more vulnerable to “negative influences and outside
pressure” and that an adolescent's character is “not as well formed as
that of an adult.”
The differences between juveniles and adults “render suspect any
conclusion that a juvenile falls among the worst offenders,” Kennedy
said. “From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the
failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility
exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed.”
Harper, the Miami public defender, said many of the same things could be
said of life without parole.
“The United Nations convention on human rights prohibits life sentences
for juveniles, just like the death penalty,” he said. “I've had clients
who did terrible things but were fine if they were treated and
However, Hobson, of the Criminal Justice Legal
Foundation, points out that if Kennedy's logic in the Roper case were
applied to other sentences, the public backlash would be overwhelming.
“The problem is that he made a categorical distinction about youth, and
people know that's not right, that there are some offenders who, despite
their age, are fully culpable for their crimes,” Hobson said. He said
any move to create broad legal exceptions for juvenile murderers would
meet the same resistance that doomed efforts in the 1980s to hold
mentally ill offenders to lower standards.
“It will be like the Twinkie defense for juveniles,” he said, referring
to the infamous claim by a California murderer that his junk food diet
impaired his mental capacity. “No one will go for it.”
If the pessimists are right, however, there's no hope for offenders like
His childhood is remarkable not only for its horror, but also for how
strongly it was connected to the crime he committed and how desperately
it cries out for treatment.
One of six children fathered by five different men, Kevin was always
“mentally slow” and “mentally ill,” according to family members who
testified during his appeals.
His mother was addicted to drugs and was mentally ill, as well. She
would leave the children for months at a time without supervision,
forcing them to wander the streets of their Philadelphia neighborhood
begging for food.
When Kevin's mother was around, she subjected the children — and Kevin
in particular — to bizarre and severe mental abuse. She showed the
children nude pictures of herself, forced them to watch her have sex
with boyfriends and sometimes chided them for “not being man enough” to
please her. She would talk about having orgies and often had sex with
more than one man in front of the children. Kevin got beatings from the
men when he tried to pull them away from his mother.
Kevin's mother once overdosed on sleeping pills while trying to commit
suicide, and Kevin, then 11, followed suit. The downed pills rendered
him unconscious and got him a trip to the hospital, but he wasn't taken
from the home.
The most prominent male figure in Kevin's life was the
father of his two youngest siblings, who dressed as a woman and forced
Kevin to sleep in the same bed with him and his mother. He “taught”
Kevin beginning at age 5 about sex, the family said, by molesting him
and showing him how to have sex with a woman. While he violated Kevin's
mother, he told Kevin that women were supposed to be subjugated by men.
“It was disgusting and sad to hear Kevin talk about the things he had
learned from Isaac and his mother,” said Yvonne Williams, an aunt. “He
was just a little boy. It was even sadder because Kevin was mentally
disturbed and could not think properly.”
When Kevin was 17, a young girl from his neighborhood told police that
he'd sexually abused her. The details of her assault led police to
connect Kevin with the rape and strangulation of Rochelle Graham, a
9-year-old whose burned body had been found 10 months earlier in an
Kevin was charged with murder, convicted and sentenced
to death. At trial, he was sedated with thorazine to prevent him from
acting out in the courtroom. His attorney failed to present the jury
with any evidence of his childhood, which could have inspired the jury
to sentence him to life in prison instead.
Robert Dunham, a lawyer in the Philadelphia federal defender's office
that now represents Kevin, said straight punishment didn't make much
sense for someone like Kevin, but that's all that was on the table.
“That's the way it works,” Dunham said. “The adult system isn't about
Kevin is now 43, and he sat on death row for 24 years before the high
court said he couldn't be executed. His mental problems have worsened,
and court records show he's tried to commit suicide several times and
has been committed to an institution for the criminally insane five
times. He's been treated with a dizzying array of psychotropic drugs to
control his behavior in prison, but the goal has never been to address
the root of his problems: a childhood defined by abuse.
Levick, of the Juvenile Law Center, said Hughes' case was a tragically
“There are things that probably should have been done for him, before we
even got to the point of talking about a death sentence,” she said. “But
to do that, we have to step back from the crime, no matter how awful it
is, and look at the person involved.
“That's hard to do, but I think the death penalty ruling suggests it's
something we ought to try.”
12 April 2005