In the afterglow of our nation’s renewed bipartisan commitment to rethinking our justice and prison system, the U.S. remains the only country that sentences our children to life in prison without parole, effectively extinguishing their lives. In the United States, where we describe ourselves as the greatest nation in the world, this is just one of the many concerns that have remained primarily outside the spotlight with regard to children in our justice system.
Right now, there are more than 2,500 Americans whose lives stopped when they were sentenced for a crime they committed as a child. Each of those shadows, who our society is afraid to discuss, will cost you and me $2.5 million. Instead, we could have recognized the stunning differences between the brain of a child and the brain of an adult, and worked to rehabilitate them, using far fewer tax dollars, providing an education and the opportunity to get right with the law and become responsible taxpayers.
Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama outlined his plans for criminal justice reform in front of an enthusiastic crowd at the NAACP National Convention. But, as the president said in his speech, true reform is sometimes lonely and sometimes hard and frustrating.
I’d add that it takes time.
The tipping point at which we find ourselves is the result of that time; the product of years of work by countless experts and at all levels of government. It is the result of the famous “arc of the moral universe,” described by Martin Luther King Jr. As he so often said, that arc is long. But, it bends toward justice.
The president commuted sentences for nonviolent offenders. Showing his belief that no life is worthless follows in the footsteps of some of our greatest moral leaders, becoming the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. He put his administration to work devising a solution to mass incarceration.
However, let’s not forget where this begins: with our children.
When we sentence a child to life without parole, we throw away a life. Abandoned, hopeless and afraid, the façade of the “teenage superpredator,” crafted by fear and prejudice in the 1980s and ’90s vanishes.
We are left with children.
These children are what we were at their age. They have the same dreams you and I did, and they deserve the same second chances that we received.
We are a nation that gives second chances, and they are our children.
Instead, we’ve become a society that decides those children are not worthy of a life, that they should receive what Pope Francis called “the hidden death penalty.”
Kids deserve the right to be wrong, because they’re kids. They should be corrected, but they should not be punished into oblivion.
We must re-examine the hardened practices of our criminal justice system, and we must not forget, they are children.
The science is clear: Children and adults are different. The teenage brain does not fully develop until the mid- to late-twenties. While adults make decisions with the prefrontal cortex, teenagers use the amygdala, responsible for impulsivity and bad risk/benefit assessment. Crimes committed as teenagers should not go unpunished, but we must acknowledge that children have a unique capacity for change, and that under the guidance of professionals they can grow into responsible adults.
The Supreme Court, understanding this science, struck down life without parole sentences for non-homicide offenses in 2010, and mandatory life without parole sentences for homicide offenses in 2012. However, life sentences remain legal in many jurisdictions in the United States.
Multiple reports show maltreatment is commonplace in too many correctional facilities, causing irreparable harm to children. Kids are routinely put in solitary confinement, forced to spend 23 hours a day in cold and unsanitary units, languishing for years with no chance for rehabilitation.
This treatment is not worthy of our justice system, nor of our nation.
I refuse to quietly continue to pay into the bottomless pit of forgotten children.
I will insist, as we all should, on a cost-effective, evidence-based American juvenile justice system.
Let’s modernize that system, drastically reduce taxpayer costs and create safer neighborhoods across our great nation.
Let’s do it for our children.
Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., is co-author of California’s Schiff-Cárdenas Crime Prevention Act, one of the first evidence-based gang intervention laws in the country.