Life Sentences for Minors
Amber Phillips of The Washington Post reports that most of the states that have issued bans on the practice of sentencing minors to life without parole are Republican-leaning states. Twenty –one states ban entirely or in most cases sentencing minors to life.
Many of the bans issued have been over the past decade, but the practice was originally conceived in the 1990s. On Tuesday (April 5), Utah became the second state this year to ban such sentences, after South Dakota (NOLA.com). In the past few years, Wyoming, Nevada, and West Virginia “have instituted some version of the ban,” according to Phillips.
Jody Lent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, cites a critical 2012 Supreme Court decision on the issue for causing the uptick in states that have banned life sentencing of minors. The debate surrounding the issue is largely about race. Advocates say that the minors who have been sentenced to life without parole are 10 times as likely to be black than white (NOLA.com).
“There’s clearly been a shift and a recognition that young people need to be held accountable in more age-appropriate ways, and we’ve really gone too far in our approach to youth sentencing,” Lavy said (NOLA.com).
She recalls the legislation of the 1990s, part of a “tough-on-crime” wave, as a cause of the notion that youths need to be sentenced to life without parole. Since then, advocates have turned the tide by leading research suggesting that juvenile offenders can be rehabilitated. In essence, Supreme Court rulings in the past decade have suggested that the sentence be used in the rarest of circumstances and that overall, mandatory life sentences without parole are unconstitutional (NOLA.com).
Much of the research cited in these cases show that adolescents’ brains are still developing, which causes their impulse control and reasoning ability to be biologically impaired compared to adults. Another argument that seems to resonate among more conservative, religious lawmakers is one of redemption (NOLA.com).
State Representative Lowry Snow of Utah, says, “Utah is very prone to a recognition that there can be redemption and people can be given a second chance” (NOLA.com).
Approximately 2,500 people in the U.S. have been sentenced to life without parole for a crime they committed when they were minors. Some crimes are so egregious that representatives and U.S. citizens seem averse to issuing total bans on giving life sentences to minors.
“If the offender appears to be an unrepentant sociopath, for example, who shows little likelihood of ever being deemed safe to be free among u, why would any caring society sentence the victims’ family to the ‘life sentence’ of unending legal battles?” says the victims advocacy group, the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murders (NOLA.com).
The debate on life sentences for minors still continues.
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