Locking up kids for life
- From the Los Angeles Times
Locking up kids for life
California can sentence criminals under 18 to life without parole.
It's cruel and unusual punishment.
January 16, 2008
California is paying a heavy price for its get-tough-on-crime
attitude, with an underfunded and overcrowded prison system, the
nation's worst recidivism rate and a rotten international image as
the state with the highest death row population. But of all the
inequities of a dysfunctional penal system and harsh state laws, few
can touch our predilection for discarding the lives of children who
commit crimes before they're old enough to fully understand the
consequences of their actions.
Sentencing youths under 18 to life without the possibility of parole
is a violation of international law that has been banned in nearly
every country in the world except this one. A recent report by Human
Rights Watch identified just seven people outside the United States
who have been subjected to this cruel and unusual punishment -- but
it found 227 in California, which leads the nation in juvenile
There are a number of reasons for California's sad history of youth
incarceration, though perhaps the biggest is that Los Angeles is the
birthplace of modern street gangs, which recruitteens and turn them
into homicidal child soldiers. In addition, state law includes an
unusually high number of "special circumstances" that increase the
penalties in homicide cases. Youths 16 and 17 who are convicted with
special circumstances are sentenced to life without parole (adults in
such cases would be eligible for the death penalty).
Not long ago, scientists thought the human brain was fully developed
by early adolescence. But modern technology, allowing more
sophisticated brain scans, has shown that isn't true. Parts of the
frontal lobe involved in inhibiting impulses and appreciating
consequences aren't fully formed in most people until they hit their
early 20s. Rash, risky and even illegal behavior is commonplace among
teens. Few go so far as to commit murder, and those who do obviously
must face serious penalties, but it is perverse to condemn a minor to
prison for life for committing a crime that he or she might find
unthinkable on reaching adulthood.
A bill before the state Senate, which will expire after Jan. 31
unless it's approved by a two-thirds vote, would correct this
injustice. SB 999 from Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) changes the
sentence for those under 18 who are convicted of murder with special
circumstances to 25 years to life. It's a lengthy term but still
assures that those eligible for parole would have a chance to turn
their lives around. Critics object that the bill would only encourage
youth violence and gang killings, but there is little evidence that
harsh penalties quell such behavior. Stronger community anti-gang
programs are a better approach.
Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times
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