Incorrigibility and the Juvenile Homicide Offender: An Ecologically Valid Integrative Review

Date01 January 2022
Published date01 January 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Incorrigibility and the
Juvenile Homicide Offender:
An Ecologically Valid
Integrative Review
Michael Welner
, Matt DeLisi
, Michael T. Baglivio
Thomas J. Guilmette
, and Heather M. Knous-Westfall
The United States Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama highlighted the importance of an
individual’s “incorrigibility” and the prospect of “irreparable corruption” when weighing possible life
sentencing for juveniles convicted of homicide. In this review, we study research in multiple content
areas spanning homicide recidivism, life-course-persistent or career criminality, and psychopathol-
ogy and incorrigibility that bears relevance to the risk assessment of juvenile homicide offenders.
A well-developed corpus of research and scholarship in these domains documents the severe,
lifelong behavioral impairments of the mo st violent delinquents. In contrast to studi es of non-
offender student samples and behaviors that bear no ecological validity to juvenile homicide, the
research covered herein emanates from epidemiological surveys, birth cohort studies, large-scale
prospective longitudinal studies, and correctional studies including homicide offenders and appro-
priate control groups of other serious delinquents. A rich research foundation in the social,
behavioral, and forensic science informs relevant, reliable, and valid forensic assessments of future
criminal deviance and incorrigibility in juvenile homicide offenders.
incorrigibility, juvenile homicide, recidivism, risk assessment, juvenile justice, life-course persistent
Since the founding of the juvenile court in 1899, justice system officials referenced the pathological
antisocial behavior of a small cadre of incorrigible youth whose recalcitrance and overall behavioral
risk profile belies their chronological age. Judge Merritt Pinckney, who presided in the seminal
juvenile court in Cook County, Illinois, offered the following assessment in 1911. “A child, a boy
Department of Psychiatry, Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, New York, NY, USA
The Forensic Panel, New York, NY, USA
Iowa State University, Ames, IA, USA
Providence College and Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Providence, RI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Matt DeLisi, Iowa State University, 203A East Hall, Ames, IA 50011, USA.
Youth Violence and JuvenileJustice
ªThe Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/15412040211030980
2022, Vol. 20(1) 22 –40
Welner et al. 23
especially, sometimes becomes so thoroughly vicious and is so repeatedly an offender that it would
not be fair to the other children in a delinquent institution who h ave not arrived at his age of
depravity and delinquency to have to associate with him (Tanenhaus, 2000, p. 13).” Since, landmark
decisions relating to preventive detention (Schall v. Martin [1984]) and the transfer or waiver
process (Kent v. United States [1966]) explicitly invoke the seriousness of the offense, violence
risk, and the antisocial disposition of the juvenile. More than a century after its founding, incorri-
gibly delinquent youth are the central focus of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile
Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s comprehensive strategy for serious, violent, and chronic
juvenile offenders (Howell, 2003; Wilson & Howell, 1993). In sum, juvenile justice has always
recognized the severe behavioral profile of incorrigible youth.
Despite the long-established salience of incorrigibly antisocial offenders to the administration of
justice, recent decisions of the United States Supreme Court have overlooked the compelling
scientific evidence about their pathological antisocial development and persistent offending. Spe-
cifically, recent decisions that invalidated capital punishment for juveniles (Roper v. Simmo ns
[2005]), that disallowed life without parole sentences for non-homicide offenses for juveniles
(Graham v. Florida [2010]), and that disallowed mandatory life sentences for juvenile homicide
offenders (Miller v. Alabama [2012]) failed to connect the defendant’s risk profile to well-
recognized and methodologically rigorous research studies.
In the first pages of Roper, Justice Kennedy unequivocally described Christopher Simmons, age
17, as the instigator of the crimes, as chilling and callous, as criminally versatile and sophisticated, as
manipulative and controlling of his younger codefendants, and that he was indifferent to the victim’s
anguish and suffering. Experts in the case opined about Simmons psychosocial features
(e.g., impulsive,immature, susceptible to influence),his difficult home environment, his poor conduct
and school performance, and his history of running away from home to engage in drug and alcohol
abuse. Althoughthis history is effectively a forensic profileof a life-course-persistent delinquent, none
of that scientific research is accounted for in the Court’s consideration of future dangerousness,
although the Court (2012, p. 20) briefly alludes to the existence of persistent offenders:
For most teens, [risky or antisocial] behavior are fleeing; they cease with maturity as individual identity
becomes settled. Only a relatively small proportion of adolescents who experiment in risky or illegal
activities develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior that persist into adulthood.
In Graham, Justice Kennedy described Terrance Jamar Graham in even more clinical, forensic,
and criminologically relevant terms. This included Graham’s birth to parents who were crack
cocaine addicted throughout his youth, the adverse rearing environment that entailed, ADHD diag-
nosis, onset of substance use at age 9 years, his involvement in armed criminal violence by age 16,
his intentional violation of community release, and his recidivistic involvement in multiple home
invasion armed robberies. These characteristics are prognostic of persistent antisocial behavior and
directly inform risk assessment among juvenile homicide offenders, but do not fully inform con-
sideration of Graham’s level of behavioral risk. (Miller v. Alabama, 2009) According to Justice
Here one cannot dispute that this defendant posed an immediate risk, for he had committed, we can
assume, serious crimes early in his term of supervised release and despite his own assurances of reform.
Graham deserved to be separated from society for some time in order to prevent what the trial court
described as an “escalating pattern of criminal conduct,” App. 394, but it does not follow that he would
be a risk to society for the rest of his life. Even if the State’s judgment that Graham was incorrigible were
later corroborated by prison misbehavior or failure to mature, the sentence was still disproportionate
because that judgment was made at the outset.
2Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice XX(X)

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