Last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act, state Senate Bill 9. This law creates a process to periodically review the progress of individuals sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as youth, with the possibility of resentencing. It declares to Californians that their children — even those who have committed serious crimes — are better than their worst acts and, therefore, deserve a second chance at life. This is a value I know many Americans share, and it should be a common characteristic of our state laws.
We demonstrated our belief in the inherent redeemability of children when we established a juvenile justice system: a system we made the error of bypassing when a now-disproven theory from the 1980s about juvenile “superpredators” caused us to start throwing away our children. But, as California and the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year in Miller v. Alabama have shown, the tide is turning.
Enactment of the Fair Sentencing for Youth Act is a landmark victory for California and for our nation —the only country in the world that condemns children to die in prison. It is a modest but important reform that had the support of a diverse array of stakeholders, including victims’ families, prosecutors, child welfare groups and medical professionals. Leaders from across the political spectrum, including former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, and former Speaker and current Minority Leader of the House Nancy Pelosi, called on Gov. Brown to enact this legislation. It brings a message of hope to those who were told as young people they were only worthy of certain death in prison.
Extreme sentences, such as life without parole, disproportionately affect low-income youth and youth of color. These sentences contribute to an already-existing sense of hopelessness among many of our children, particularly those who grow up in communities where they are offered few opportunities for quality education and fulfillment of their potential. This deficit of hope, although not an excuse, can contribute to tragic choices. Moreover, sentencing youth to die in prison disregards what every parent knows, and what science has proven: young people, including those convicted of serious crimes, have a unique capacity to change if given the opportunity.
I was inspired to do this work when I witnessed the despair of young people who feel everyone has abandoned them when I volunteered in the juvenile halls in Los Angeles County. I led prayer groups for children facing criminal charges in adult court and in many cases, decades-long sentences in adult prisons. Over time, several of the young people I worked with shared their stories with me. These stories often included incarcerated siblings, parents suffering from drug addiction, homelessness and teachers who had given up on them. I will never forget when a 15-year-old boy looked me in the eyes and told me he had no hope for his life.
The United States of America exists as a beacon of hope to the world, and a leader in upholding individual human rights. But as long as we condemn children to die in prison, we grossly undermine that role. A broad-based movement comprised of people from various backgrounds and perspectives has united to ensure that we live up to our principles by legislating according to our shared value that children should never be sentenced to die in prison. This coalescence is in line with our American history of coming together around shared values, regardless of our differences.
As a nation, we have the moral obligation to ensure that youth are held accountable for harm they have caused in an age-appropriate way that gives them hope of a second chance to demonstrate their value and ability to become productive members of our society.
Many states are scrambling to figure out how to comply with the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children are cruel and unusual punishments.
The best advice is simple: slow down and take advantage of this opportunity to rethink how you should hold youth accountable for serious crimes.
The June ruling struck down all statutes that require a child to be sentenced to die in prison. In doing so, the Court reaffirmed its recent holdings that require children to be treated differently in the justice system. People now serving mandatory life sentences without parole for crimes committed as youth are due resentencing hearings, which must take into account mitigating factors such as their age at the time of the crime, family history, role in the crime, and other relevant factors.
In many ways, the Court’s ruling was another reaction against the wrongheaded policymaking of the 1980s and 1990s, when upticks in crime among youth led academic researchers and other opinion leaders to predict a major wave of violent crime by “juvenile superpredators.” Policymakers reacted with fear-based policy reforms making it easier to try children as adults and making more extreme sentences available to them.
These juvenile crime waves never materialized, and the superpredator theory has been debunked and acknowledged as inaccurate by originators. The Miller ruling has provided an opportunity for states to revisit the decisions that ignore the unique capacity of children to mature and change their behavior, and have caused prison budgets to balloon while having little discernible effect on public safety.
The ruling does not require swift action by either the legislative or the executive branches of government. The worst approach would be to repeat past mistakes of making politically-motivated policy changes that fail to appropriately reflect the unique characteristics of children. The Supreme Court precedent is clear: the states need to take a long, hard look at how they hold young people accountable for serious crimes, with a consideration of their age and capacity to change.
Already, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has demonstrated what not to do. Earlier this summer, he “commuted” the mandatory life without parole sentence of 38 youth offenders eligible for relief under Miller to mandatory 60-year terms. Newspaper editorial pages and Iowa’s U.S. Senator, Tom Harkin, have already spoken out against the move, noting that it conflicts with the Court’s requirement for individualized sentencing that considers mitigating factors.
Policymakers should look to existing models for holding children accountable, such as from Missouri and countries like Germany and New Zealand, which focus on rehabilitation and reintegration into society. These models not only balance retribution and rehabilitation, but are also cost-effective.
Research has proven that the vast majority of children age out of criminal behavior over time. Meanwhile, the average cost of a life sentence that begins in one’s late teens is $2 million, once the increased medical costs of old-age are considered. Keeping aging people locked up forever serves no public safety purpose and wastes taxpayer dollars. If we check in on children later in life to see if they have been rehabilitated and release those who have, states can use the taxpayer dollars that would otherwise be spent on prisoner medical care and housing for crime prevention programs and supportive services for victims, which are sorely underfunded.
The Supreme Court has granted states with an unprecedented opportunity to think holistically about how we want to address the needs of both victims and youthful offenders. States ought to think seriously about the message that the Supreme Court is sending: your old approach to punishing children is unconstitutional. Quick fixes are not sufficient.
Jody Kent Lavy is Director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.