Fair Sentencing for Youth

 

   

The Need for Change

In California, youth as young as 14 years old are tried as adults in criminal courts, and sentenced to adult prison terms.

Over 6,500 people currently in California prisons were under the age of 18 and as young as 14 years old at the time of their crime. Many were transferred to the adult criminal justice system without any consideration of their ability to change. They were juveniles, but tried as adults and sentenced to adult prison terms.

Law, science, and commonsense all agree: teenagers are different from adults. Under state and federal law, people under the age of 18 cannot use alcohol or cigarettes, sign a lease, join the military, or vote. Our laws recognize that they are not mature enough for these responsibilities. Yet, in California, youth are sentenced to adult prison sentences without careful, individualized analysis of whether they could turn their lives around. Research has shown that certain areas of the brain, particularly those that affect judgment and decision-making, do not fully develop until the early 20’s. Tremendous growth and maturity occurs in the late teens through the mid-20s. Trying children as adults and sentencing them to adult prison terms ignores this simple truth. The current system provides no viable mechanism for reviewing a case after a young person has grown up and matured.

Current California law fails to recognize human capacity for change.

Youth who commit crimes should be held accountable. However, when California sentences someone under the age of 18 to an adult prison sentence, it disregards the human capacity for rehabilitation and ignores the very real physical and psychological differences between youth and adults. Punishment should reflect the capacity of young people to change and mature.

Changes in California law have removed many safeguards and points for review that once existed for youth charged with crimes.

Changes in California law have diminished many safeguards and points for review that once existed for youth charged with crimes. Longstanding procedures requiring a formal hearing before a judge and assessment of the young person before being sent to the adult criminal system have been undermined by rules for automatic or direct filing. Laws now mandate the automatic transfer to adult court youth as young at 14 years old in some cases. As a result, many youth now are tried as adults and face adult penalties without consideration of their amenability to rehabilitation. These changes mean that California has limited its ability to impose sentences that make sense for a young person.

Our existing sentencing laws ignore the latest scientific evidence on adolescent development.

Research has shown that certain areas of the brain, particularly those that affect judgment and decision-making, do not fully develop until the early 20’s. As the US Supreme Court noted, “[t]he reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character.” Roper v. Simmons. The fact that young adults are still developing means that they are uniquely situated for personal growth. California laws passed prior to this research do not take into account these findings. California should reform its laws to reflect this latest scientific evidence on adolescent and young adult development, recognizing that youth who were under the age of 18 at that time of their crime have an especially strong ability to grow and change.

People in their late teens are still developing, and the direction of that development is not one that can be predicted with reliability.

The US Supreme Court stated, “It is difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.” Roper v. Simmons. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a court to accurately judge a youth and predict the type of person that he or she will become. California’s law should be changed to provide a judge the opportunity to examine a defendant’s life after he has had an opportunity to grow up, mature, and prove himself.

 

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