Give the Kids a Break
It's time to ease the too-tough, and ill-conceived, sentencing of juveniles.
By Annette Fuentes
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Vengeance and harsh retribution have been the guiding principles in our treatment of youth in the criminal justice system since the crack-cocaine tinged crime wave of the late 1980s crested and then fell in the mid-1990s. States got tough with laws that allowed the prosecution of juveniles as adults in certain felony crimes, as well as the sentencing of youth convicted of murder-related crimes to life without the chance of parole.
Now a downturn in violent juvenile crime, coupled with more data on the development of the adolescent brain, are prompting some states to rethink whether the harsh punishments still fit the crimes.
The time for change is right, even in cases involving juveniles arrested and convicted of murder and related crimes, such as aiding and abetting a murder. There are rumblings for reform in several statehouses.
In 2006, Colorado led the way by outlawing sentences of life without the possibility of parole for youth offenders. In California, state Sen. Leland Yee just introduced a bill to prohibit such sentences for offenders who were younger than 18 at the time of the crime. His measure would allow judges discretion in sentencing. Absent a national movement for juvenile sentencing reform, the battles are often being waged by individual legislators such as Yee or through grassroots activism in states, such as in Washington, Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska and Massachusetts.
Why should we change course now?
First, look at crime trends. For a decade, violent and property crimes by juveniles have fallen nationwide. In every category of crime from violent felonies such as homicide and rape, to property crimes of auto theft or robbery, juvenile rates have been steadily falling, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics:
• For murder and non-negligent (not accidental) murder, the number of people under 18 arrested dropped from 1,224 in 1997 to 710 in 2006. That's a 42% decline. For those over 18, there was a 13% dip.
• Youth arrests for theft fell 45%; for aggravated assault, by 21%; auto thefts, by 53%.
• Arrests of young people for violent crimes fell by 20% from 1997 to 2006.
Experts see various reasons for the dramatic drop: the end of the crack-cocaine epidemic and its attendant violence; effective policing strategies in major urban areas, especially those that focused on illegal gun possession; and generally rosier economic times.
But it was during the height of the earlier crime wave that today's laws were crafted. Criminologists warned of a new breed of juvenile offender, dubbed "superpredator" by John Dilulio, who would bring a "blood bath" of violent crime, according to James Alan Fox. That hysteria proved wrong, as evidenced by the falling crime rates among adolescents and youth.
Biological reasons also provide a strong basis for reform. Current research has identified critical differences between the young brain and the adult one, especially in terms of decision-making skills and impulse control.
These adolescent development issues are what prompted Sen. Yee to spearhead reform in his state. Yee, a child psychologist, told The Oakland Tribune: "Adolescent impulse control, planning and critical thinking skills are still not yet fully developed. Children have an extraordinary capacity for rehabilitation."
Still not convinced? Human Rights Watch provides a sobering analysis in its recent report titled, "When I die, that's when they'll send me home." It reveals that in California, 227 people in prison today were sentenced to life without parole when they were juveniles, and all but four were sentenced since that state passed its sentencing law in 1990. Of those, 45% did not commit the actual murder. They were convicted as accessories to murder, often as lookouts during a robbery gone awry.
Another argument for reform: According to data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the Department of Justice, about two-thirds of youth ages 16-17 who committed crimes as juveniles including assaults, theft, and vandalism did not commit crimes into their early adult years, ages 18-19.
Advocates for crime victims have staunchly opposed sentencing reforms such as Yee's, and that's understandable, says Elizabeth Calvin, co-author of the Human Rights Watch report.
"What makes it difficult when you are talking about a crime like murder, which is so horrible and causes so much pain to families and communities, is that it doesn't help their pain if the offender is a juvenile," Calvin says. "But sentencing laws and how we treat our young say a lot about our society."
In some cases, youth convicted of brutal crimes might not be deserving of consideration. But at a minimum, for those 45% identified by the report as convicted of accessory to murder, there is every reason to believe redemption is possible.
Justice strategies for juveniles conceived during a crime-wave hysteria shouldn't become the template for our society, and life-without-parole sentencing is a good place to start.
Let's replace Old Testament retribution with New Testament redemption. After all, if young people don't deserve a second chance, does anyone?
Annette Fuentes is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.