OP-ED: A Tale of Two State Houses

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John LashTwo recent stories on the JJIE show the contrasting approaches that states have taken to address last year’s Miller vs. Alabama decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. If you aren’t familiar with the decision, the justices found that juvenile offenders, in part because of their lack of brain development, and thus decision making powers, are not eligible for mandatory life without parole sentences.

The first article was about Connecticut, where the joint judiciary committee approved a bill granting reviews to those who receive a sentence greater than 10 years and were under the age of 18 when the crime was committed.

The second, from Florida, takes a very different tack. Members of the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved a bill mandating a 50-year minimum for juveniles convicted of murder. Non murder offenses would have a 50-year maximum.

Both of these have only been approved by committee, but they highlight differing stances by at least some legislators in each state, and reflect a general split in opinion about what should happen to kids who commit terrible crimes. Much like Southern states’ resistance to integration and civil rights in the last century, some locales, mostly conservative, will resist what they see as the court’s interference in the way they do things.

Instead of taking the court’s decision to heart, and without truly contemplating the evolving understanding of how juvenile decision making is impacted by brain development (and in some cases trauma), the state senators in Florida chose a simplistic and ill-conceived response. They have replaced one cruelty with another.

Consider the inequity of sentencing a juvenile to a 50-year sentence. Few people beyond their mid-20s can reasonably be expected to complete such a sentence. A 35-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy could commit identical crimes, and the juvenile can be expected to receive what amounts to the harsher sentence.

This is made even more unjust when we take into account the probability of rehabilitation in the two criminals. The teenager is much more likely to change as he grows older. Many teens simply “age out” of criminal behavior even without intervention. Adult offenders are more likely to persist in their criminal ways.

The only reason to keep a kid locked up in prison is if they remain a danger to society. The Connecticut plan takes this into account, guaranteeing a review of the case, not an automatic release. This is reasonable and fair, and takes into account public safety concerns as well as extends mercy to people who are truly different people than they were as kids.

This is far superior to the plan in Florida, which offers only pain and despair, and for no other reason than a simplistic and lazy moralism aimed as much at getting votes as it is at creating justice.


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