As it stands now, California law allows minors as young as 14 years old to be sentenced to life in prison, for certain crimes. Currently, the United States is one of the only countries in the developed world that still has life imprisonment available as a punishment for juvenile offenders. Most other countries recognize that rehabilitating a juvenile criminal has a far better chance of success than rehabilitating a hardened, adult criminal, and that attempting to do so is a worthy investment.
If some California legislatures get their way, the situation in that state might soon change. The bill, currently headed for a vote in the California assembly, would give some juvenile lifers in California a chance at being released. This comes on the heels of a Supreme Court decision, holding that juvenile defendants cannot be sentenced to life without parole for crimes other than murder.
If passed, offenders who were juveniles when they committed the crimes for which they were sentenced to life must be made eligible for parole after they have served 15 years of their sentence. It does not require that parole be granted. It essentially eliminates life without the opportunity for parole for juvenile offenders in California. Just because a court is required to re-examine sentences of juvenile offenders after they’ve served 15 years, doesn’t mean the court has to order the prisoner’s release, if it determines that they have not been reformed and are still a threat to society.
In recent years, the Supreme Court (and, I believe, America in general) has expressed a desire to reduce the number of crimes for which the death penalty can be imposed. It started small – with the Supreme Court ruling that a state can’t impose the death penalty for the rape of an adult which does not result in the victim’s death, leaving open the question of whether or not the death penalty is a constitutional punishment for the rape of a child. In the mid-2000s, the Supreme Court ruled that the mentally disabled cannot be executed, or can anyone be executed if they were under the age of 18 at the time the crime was committed. Most recently, the Court ruled that the death penalty cannot be imposed for the rape of a child when the victim does not die, essentially eliminating the death penalty for all crimes except murder (and possibly treason).
I generally support this trend of narrowing the use of the death penalty. Now that the use of the death penalty in the United States is as limited as it’s going to be for the foreseeable future, many reformers are turning their attention on life sentences without the possibility of parole. As mentioned earlier, the Supreme Court, in the 2010 case of Graham v. Florida took a very small step in limiting the imposition of this sentence, holding that it cannot be imposed on minors for crimes other than murder.
The Sentencing Law and Policy Blog recently examined the question of whether or not life sentences should be eliminated for juvenile offenders altogether, pointing out that attempts at the lower courts to extend the Graham holding to all juvenile offenders, even those convicted of murder.
A compelling case can be made for this. Recent discoveries in neuroscience suggest that brain development is not complete well into adolescence, suggesting that most people under 18 have reduced capacity for impulse control, critical thinking, and planning.
Now, obviously, anyone who deliberately takes the life of another needs to be put away for a long time. However, the death penalty for juvenile offenders is gone, and it’s almost certainly not coming back. This leaves states with the alternative of sentencing them to life without parole, which is a costly and (arguably) unnecessary endeavor. Wouldn’t it make more sense, rather than feeding, clothing, and sheltering a juvenile offender who might live for another 60+ years, to try and rehabilitate them, and turn them into a productive member of society who does not spend their life as a public charge?
While the American prison system talks a good game about rehabilitation, it is still largely built on a model that emphasized punishment and permanent separation from society.
Perhaps forcing states to give all juvenile offenders an opportunity to seek parole would prompt them to get serious about prison reform, and really focus their attention on rehabilitating juvenile offenders, rather than filing them away forever. After all, if all juvenile offenders have a serious chance of being released, wouldn’t a state rather release a rehabilitated adult who has a reasonable chance at re-integrating into society, or a hardened criminal? The answer seems pretty obvious to me.
While advocates for crime victims are understandably upset at this California proposal, as well as any suggestion of early release for convicted criminals, it’s important to remember that nobody is suggesting that all juvenile offenders should be guaranteed a release at some point. These proposals would simply require that, at some point, they be given an opportunity to prove to a court that they’ve been rehabilitated, and should be release. If there is not enough evidence to support their assertion, the court could, and should, deny their request.
A blog post, written by the relative of the victim of a violent crime committed by a juvenile, agrees with the need for juvenile sentencing reform, arguing that locking up a child and giving them no chance to become rehabilitated is a waste of a life, and does not provide justice to the victim, the victim’s family, or the offender.
I’m sure there are some offenders, juvenile and otherwise, who simply cannot be rehabilitated, and need to be removed from society, for the safety of everyone else. This proposal would allow them to remain in prison indefinitely, while giving a second chance to those who can prove they deserve it.