By Pat Nolan, Vice President of Prison Fellowship and Jody Kent Lavy, Director & National Coordinator of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth
Think back to when you were a teenager. Did you do anything that was really stupid? We both certainly did. Over time our thought processes developed and we made better decisions. We cringe now at the thought of how careless we were back then.
Of course, what happened to us is experienced by all young people. Scientists have found that our brains are not fully developed as teens. That means that teenagers don't always make very good decisions. They are more impulsive and have less ability to assess risks than adults. That is why we don't let youngsters drink until they are 21, and they cannot sign contracts or make other legal decisions until they are 18.
However, there is one area where these fundamental differences between young people and adults are not acknowledged: many states' criminal laws. Many of the states allow teenagers to be sentenced to life without parole even if they were as young as 12 or 13 at the time of the crime. There is no doubt that youngsters can make horrible decisions that end up harming others. And they should be held accountable for those acts. But is it just to imprison them for the rest of their lives without at least considering their capacity to mature and improve themselves?
A year ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Graham v. Florida that recognized the difference in children's ability to make mature judgments and their potential for growth, and held that it is unconstitutional to sentence children to life in prison without the possibility of parole for non-homicide crimes. The Court based its ruling on well-developed research that proves that young people are not simply little adults.
However, there are circumstances in which a youngster that didn't kill someone else can still be held for life - if they are convicted of "felony murder." One real life example of this unjust policy involves a young man who admits that he agreed to participate in the carjacking of two missionaries. However, when he heard the couple begin praying and sharing their Christian faith with their attackers, he ran away and was at home when they were murdered. Nevertheless, he will spend the rest of his life in prison because he was given the same sentence as his co-defendants who murdered the missionaries--life without parole.
Human Rights Watch estimates that one-quarter of the people sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed in their youth were convicted of felony murder. They will die in prison for something they did in their teens.
That sentence handed down to the young man essentially tells him he cannot make anything good of himself no matter how hard he works to transform his life, and no matter how successful he is at turning his life around. We think that is wrong. It leaves these young offenders without hope.
We propose that all youths convicted of serious crimes serve a sentence of meaningful time, and then are checked in on later in life to determine whether they may safely return to our communities. The burden would be on them to demonstrate that they have been rehabilitated and are fit to re-enter society. If they could, then they could be released. This system would ensure they are held accountable for their offense but are also given hope that they might be released after demonstrating a changed heart.
We both know that victims and survivors of serious crimes endure significant hardship and trauma that isn't any less if the perpetrator is young. These victims and survivors deserve to be provided with supportive services, and should be notified when their case is being reviewed and have the opportunity to be heard. We believe in restorative practices that promote healing for the crime victims as well as the young people who have been convicted of crimes.
We are all better than the worst thing we have ever done and should not be judged for the rest of our lives for our greatest failures. This fatalistic approach undermines what we believe as people of faith, and as a nation that values the human dignity of our children. Instead, we should focus on rehabilitation for youth and reintegration into society.
In Graham, Justice Kennedy wrote, “life in prison without the possibility of parole gives no chance for fulfillment outside prison walls, no chance for reconciliation with society, no hope. Maturity can lead to that considered reflection which is the foundation for remorse, renewal, and rehabilitation.” We don't think that most people want to throw away the lives of these young people. State and federal policymakers should build upon the Graham decision issued a year ago, to enact reforms that allow justice to be done, and still leave room for mercy and hope for all youth convicted of serious crimes, as our proposal recommends. After all, looking back on our stupid actions as teenagers, wouldn't we want to have a system that encouraged us to change, and gave us freedom when we had proven we could make a positive contribution to society and be good neighbors?
For more information go to www.fairsentencingofyouth.org