SAN FRANCISCO — At the turn of the 20th Century, Lucy Flower, my grandmother’s great grandmother, established the world’s first juvenile court inside the Cook County courthouse in central Chicago.
Flower, who had been orphaned, was horrified by the misery and bleak futures of the city’s poorest children, and believed their criminal behaviors should be handled differently than that of adults. She and the other early “child-savers” viewed children and young teenagers as victims, neglected by their parents and by society, who still had the potential to get their lives on track. After finding success in Chicago, separate courts for young people, which focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment, were soon established nationwide.
But more than 100 years later, punishment has prevailed. Across the criminal justice system, punishment, in the form of severe prison sentences, has become more important than rehabilitating offenders, protecting the public, helping crime victims, and supporting children with traumatic and abusive upbringings.
More than 2,500 Californians are serving life sentences in prison for crimes they committed when they were younger than 18. At San Quentin, it is all too common to come across young men serving 35 or 40 years-to-life for crimes they committed before they were old enough to drive — meaning they would be in their 50s before their first parole hearings. Some are serving 60-to-life or more, and I know one young man with the preposterous sentence of 102 years-to-life.
Now, California lawmakers have an opportunity to restore some humanity and common sense to the state’s criminal justice system. Senate Bill 260, which was overwhelmingly passed by the state Senate and is now one committee away from a vote on the Assembly floor, would reform the parole process to ensure that young offenders are given a true opportunity to prove their rehabilitation, remorse, and potential for success. The bill would require the parole board to evaluate young offenders after they have served between 15 and 25 years in prison, depending on the offense and the original sentence, giving some a chance to begin lives outside prison walls before reaching middle age.
Research shows that extremely long sentences do not improve public safety. They do not deter crime, their resulting incapacitation has small and quickly diminishing returns, and, in an overcrowded and punitive prison system like California’s, they do not facilitate rehabilitation. If anything, long prison sentences endanger the public by inhaling funds that could otherwise be used for addressing the root causes of crime, such as strengthening social welfare programs and investing in public education and victim’s services. The bottom line: Long sentences are good for nothing but punishment.
So what? “Adult crime, adult time,” the saying goes, and indeed, every state allows prosecution of youth “as adults” for serious and violent crimes. But the notion is absurd. A child does not become a mature adult when he drives a getaway car, breaks into a house, or pulls a trigger — if anything, these behaviors are indicative of immaturity. He certainly does not grow up when he shuffles into adult criminal court.
No matter how serious the consequences of the crime, these offenders are still teenagers, careening through their biologically-determined peaks of impulsiveness, risk-taking, and submission to peer pressure. Under SB 260, for the first time, the parole board would take these characteristics into account, and consider teenagers as less deserving of punishment than adults.
Of course, all teenagers deal with hormonal waves and incomplete control systems, but most do not commit serious and violent crimes. As Lucy Flower recognized more than a century ago, young people who commit crimes are frequently victims of society’s neglect. A 2012 report by the Sentencing Project thrusts this reality into sharp relief, showing that teenagers handed life sentences have overwhelmingly experienced poverty, physical and sexual abuse, and failing schools. They were routinely exposed to violence in their homes, in their streets, and in their classrooms.
Helping young people who suffer through no fault of their own is our social responsibility. But for too long, rather than supporting these children and their communities, we have left them to deal with their troubles on their own. Rather than focus on creating environments in which children can grow into healthy, productive, and thriving adults, we rely on a uniquely punitive criminal justice system to pick up the pieces. SB 260 is a small but important step towards recapturing the intentions of the early child-savers, and treating struggling young people with the compassion they deserve.
Lizzie Buchen is a member of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) policy team. She holds an M.S. in neuroscience from UCSF and has worked in journalism and prisoner rehabilitation. She is also a volunteer adviser for the San Quentin News, a monthly newspaper produced by prisoners at San Quentin State Prison.