March 23, 2012 from the NY Times
Sentencing for Juvenile Offenders
To the Editor:
The Op-Ed article by Gail Garinger, a former juvenile court judge (“Juveniles Don’t Deserve Life Sentences,” March 15), resonates with me in a deeply personal way. Twenty-five years ago, my world was forever changed when my beloved daughter Cathy,then pregnant with her second child, was murdered by two teenagers.
When my own pain felt unbearable, I became a grief counselor, eventually working with programs that bring together victims of crimes and offenders. As I opened my mind and heart to young prisoners who expressed remorse and wanted to change, I began to experience my own healing – and came to the belief that it is senseless to condemn juveniles to a permanent punishment of life in prison without parole.
I have met and come to know the man who, in his youth, committed the unspeakable crime that took my daughter’s life. He deeply regrets his actions and has dedicated his life to being a positive influence in his community. He is proof of the incredible growth young people are capable of.
By allowing for sentence review after years have passed, we give juveniles something to hope for. We give them a reason to strive to be better. I know Cathy would want young people to have that chance.LINDA L. WHITE
Magnolia, Tex., March 15, 2012
To the Editor:
Re “Cruel and Unusual Punishment for 14-Year-Olds” (editorial, March 21):
This week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases dealing with life without parole for juvenile offenders. In recent opinions, the justices have acknowledged what all parents know: kids are not just little adults. They think, act and respond in fundamentally different ways. Research using functional magnetic resonance imaging has demonstrated that brain
development continues throughout the teenage years. Studies have also shown that the more primitive, instinctual part of the brain develops first, followed by the more advanced regions that control judgment and reasoning.
As a result, adolescents are more likely to act on impulse and be less able to stop,modify their behavior or fully consider the consequences of their actions.
The court recognized these differences in its previous decisions concerning sentences for crimes committed by juveniles. One hopes that its review of the current cases will again be informed by our contemporary understanding of adolescent
April 3, 2011 from the NYTimes
Fixing the Mistake With Young Offenders
There is new evidence that state governments are finally understanding what a tragic mistake they made during the 1990s when they began trying ever larger numbers of children as adults instead of sending them to the juvenile justice system.
Prosecutors argued that harsh sentencing would protect the public from violent, youthful predators. But it has since turned out that most young people who spend time in jails and prisons are charged with nonviolent offenses. As many as half are never convicted of anything at all. In addition, research has shown that these young people are vulnerable to battery and rape at the hands of adult inmates and more likely to become violent, lifelong criminals than those who are held in juvenile custody.
A new study by the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington advocacy group, shows that state legislatures across the country are getting the message. In the last five years, the authors say, 15 states have passed nearly 30 pieces of legislation aimed at reversing policies that funnel a quarter of a million children into the adult justice system each year.
Ten states, including Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana and Nevada, have cut the number of offenses that get youthful offenders automatically transferred to adult courts. Three states have expanded the jurisdiction of the juvenile courts, so that children under 18 are no long automatically prosecuted as adults. And several states have limited the circumstances under which young people can be housed in adult lock-ups before or after conviction.
Momentum is building for similar reforms all across the country. For example, Nebraska is considering a bill that would give people sentenced as juveniles to life without parole an opportunity to petition for reductions.
Far too many children are still being sentenced by adult courts and confined to adult prisons. But this study shows that the tide has begun to turn.
6 18 12Supreme Court to look at life without parole/prison Legal Network
ATLANTA The U.S. Supreme Court has already said - twice - that teenage criminals are not the same as their adult counterparts.
Now the high court is expected to rule, perhaps today, whether it is constitutional to sentence teenage killers to life without parole, considering that teenagers’ brains are not yet fully developed. Life without parole is a punishment Georgia and 38 other states have imposed on 2,700 juvenile killers, and the court ruling could impact the punishment of Jonathan Bun, who was 17 when he murdered Clayton County sheriff’s Deputy Rick Daly last July.Depending on how the Supreme Court rules, Bun’s lawyer is due in court Thursday to argue that it would be cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to sentence the teenager to life without parole for something he did as a juvenile. Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson disagrees. “Once in a while there is a young person so mean that the only way to protect society is to lock them away for the rest of their lives,” she said.
“The question is how big a pound of flesh do you need?” said Stephen Bright, senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights and a law professor at Yale University. “We know in the teenage years the child’s brain is not fully developed, especially for anger control and impulsive behavior.”Opponents of the sentence say some people can be redeemed and should have a chance at parole, at least after they have spent decades in prison - a minimum of 30 years for anyone sentenced to life. Advocates of life without parole for criminals of any age say the penalty is designed for those who are likely to always be so dangerous that they should never again walk free.
In 2005, the Supreme Court put the death penalty off-limits for murderers younger than 18, which left prosecutors with only the option of life in prison without parole for juveniles who commit crimes so heinous that life with the possibility of clemency is not enough. In 2010 the justices again looked at punishment for teenage criminals. At that time, the court ruled that sentencing a teenager to life without parole for a crime that didn’t involve a death violated constitutional protection from cruel and unusual punishment.
Now the justices are examining the cases of two 14-year-old killers - one in Alabama and the other in Arkansas - to determine whether a juvenile should be sentenced to life without parole for any crime. Emory law professor Kay Levine said previous Supreme Court decisions suggest the justices have a “deepening appreciation for scientific evidence of the developing juvenile brains. The brain does not develop until around the age of 25. As a result, the court is increasingly uncomfortable with enforcing such harsh punishment … on people whose brains have not formed.”
Of the 39 states that allow life without parole for juveniles, Pennsylvania has the most - 450 inmates - who came into the prison system for crimes they committed when they were teenagers. Georgia has sentenced far fewer teenagers to life without parole. Until recent years, state law allowed prosecutors to ask for life without parole only when the circumstances called for the death penalty, which they could not seek for juvenile defendants. Of the 31 Georgia juveniles sentenced to life without parole, one was 13 and two were 14 when they killed. Only one of the 31 is still a juvenile, according to Department of Corrections data.
Lacey Aaron Schmidt, now 16, was sentenced in March. He was 14 when he shot classmate Alana Calahan in the head and hid her body in Columbia County woods. The girl’s parents called Schmidt a monster and a hateful beast.
Still, Levine raises the question: “Does it make sense to condemn someone for the rest of his or her life for a dangerous, irrational decision made as a juvenile?””You cannot predict how a teenager is going to be in 20, 30 years,” Bright said. But there must be consequences, said Bruce Holmes of Rex, whose 17-month-old great-grandson was murdered in 2009 by his teenage father.
Brain development is “not an excuse,” Holmes said. Otherwise, “it would become open season for people to commit crimes knowing they won’t have to serve any big time for it. They aren’t thinking with a full deck here. You’re opening the door for a lot of stuff.”
According to legal experts, the Supreme Court’s possible decisions are:
*Let the 39 states’ laws stand.
*Determine that under no circumstances should children be sentenced to life without parole.
*Rule that a judge must take into consideration the age and the circumstances before choosing a sentence of life without parole.
If the justices choose the third option, Bright said, the 31 in Georgia prisons could still be resentenced to life without parole after a judge takes their age into account…