Youth Offenders Deserve a Chance for Rehabilitation

Every state in our nation has laws restricting children from voting, serving on juries, and purchasing alcohol. These laws recognize that children do not have the mental or emotional maturity adults have to exercise judgment or to make certain decisions. Such laws were put in place both to protect children and for the good of the citizenry as a whole.[IMGCAP(1)] Similarly, laws should protect children who make impulsive, criminal decisions from being exposed to irreversible life sentences.According to the American Medical Association, adolescents as a group are more prone to engage in risky, impulsive and sensation-seeking behavior because their brains are not yet fully developed. Given this fact, criminal behavior by juveniles is not necessarily a permanent part of their character.Like a death sentence, life without the possibility of parole is final and unchangeable. It is an unjust sentence for a juvenile offender whose own judgment and character are not yet fully developed. For these reasons, American Bar Association policy states that juvenile offenders should at least have the opportunity to appear before a parole board at some point to make their case that they have been 100 percent rehabilitated and have shown utter remorse for their crime. It is important to understand that the possibility of parole is not a rubber stamp, in fact parole is rarely granted, and when it is, it comes with a plethora of restrictions including but not limited to weekly reporting, restrictions on travel, electronic monitoring, and drug testing.The Supreme Court has already recognized that children are different from adults. In Roper v. Simmons the court held that it is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on children younger than 18, noting that juveniles are susceptible to ‘immature and irresponsible behavior’ and ‘have a greater claim than adults to be forgiven for failing to escape negative influences in their whole environment.’ On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding whether to allow a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility for parole for juvenile offenders. The court’s reasoning behind the Roper case in 2005 is still a valid argument today. A life sentence without parole for juvenile offenders is similarly unconstitutional.Some people will argue that juvenile offenders don’t have the capacity to change and will only grow up to become malicious adults. While a small number of juvenile offenders may and do become chronic offenders — for a number of reasons — it is unethical for our society to deny minors who have not reached their full mental and emotional capacity the chance to mature into contributing members of society as adults.Juveniles who have not completely developed their ability to make sound decisions for themselves are more easily influenced by their environment. At the same time, juveniles have limited control over the environment in which they are being raised. Experts in neuroscience, social science and psychology agree that the same immaturity and flexibility that make teenagers more susceptible to outside influences also make them strong candidates for rehabilitation. Many studies show that adolescents are more capable of rehabilitation than adults, either as a result of natural maturation or through the intervention of criminal sanctions.There are about 2,500 people in U.S. prisons serving life sentences for crimes they committed when they were younger than 18. The United States is the only country in the world that allows the sentencing of children to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Convention on the Rights of the Child — ratified by the majority of U.N. member states, excluding the U.S. — precludes sentencing children to life without the possibility of parole. Without a Supreme Court ruling prohibiting juvenile offenders to life without parole, punishment for such offenses can be unduly harsh and undermine the juvenile justice system’s objective to rehabilitate youth offenders. A just society considers the malleable character of children and adolescents, as well as scientific evidence that indicates children are not capable of making certain decisions. The Supreme Court should follow this precedent, acknowledge the scientific authority and allow for the possibility of rehabilitation into the community for youth, and a second chance. Carolyn B. Lamm is president of the American Bar Association.

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