Life without parole sentences for California's youth offenders are yet another of our state's misguided juvenile justice policies. 180 Men and women in our state prisons will die behind bars for crimes committed before they were eighteen and the number increases yearly. And this doesn't count the unknown number of kids serving sentences that are tantamount to life without parole - e.g. sequential life sentences or life plus a hundred years.
As a society, we have concluded fifteen or sixteen year olds are too immature to buy cigarettes or alcohol, to serve on juries or to sign contracts. We insist they must wait before taking on the responsibilities and privileges of adults. The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that children under eighteen, in part because their brains have not yet developed sufficiently to allow them to fully comprehend the consequences of their actions, cannot be made subject to capital punishment. Why, then, do we permit death by incarceration for these same immature young people?
No doubt many Californians believe Life without Parole is reserved for violent gang members who have wreaked havoc on their communities. In fact, a new report by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International shows that the majority of youth sentenced to life without parole nationwide receive the sentence for their first crime.
Perhaps, sadly, some have accepted the sentence because it is primarily levied on minority youth. The two human rights organizations report that black youth are sentenced to life without parole at 22 times the rate of white kids.
It is somewhat reassuring then, to know that 86% of West Coast residents, including Californians, according to a recent poll, do not believe life without parole sentences for kids are just. They believe that with maturity young inmates should have the possibility of earning their freedom, the chance for parole, no matter how heinous their crime.
The rest of the world agrees. According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, only 13 countries in addition to the U.S. allow children to be sentences to life without parole, and that is in theory. In fact, only about a dozen young offenders now serve life without parole sentences in just 3 of those 13 countries. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by every country in the world except Somalia and the U.S., expressly forbids such sentences.
We all know kids are not the same as adults - a fifteen your old thinks, feel, responds differently than a thirty five year old. That doesn't mean a fifteen year old who murders shouldn't be held accountable. But the punishment must incorporate society's recognition that children - by virtue of their immaturity - are simply not as blameworthy as adults. And the punishment must offer hope; it must reflect the possibility that as a child matures, he or she will develop the potential to lead a law abiding life.
Some Californians may hold the view that young murderers should never get a second chance because their victims never got one. But how harmful can it be to our state to allow offenders under eighteen access to parole procedures at some point during their incarceration? Certainly the possibility of parole doesn't undercut the moral condemnation of the crime; nor would it undermind public safety.
For many victims' family members, justice includes knowing the offender is striving to counteract the violence of his crime by working, expressing remorse, learning new skills, finding new values and developing the ability to re-embark on a better, productive, law-abiding life.
Giving juvenile offenders access to parole does not mean throwing wide the prisons doors. Some may never earn parole. But California law - like human rights law - should certainly include the possibility of redemption.