The past & present politics of punishing kids

In 1993, the Denver media created a sensation when they published several articles under banners dubbing that summer “The Summer of Violence.” Despite the fact that crime rates had decreased significantly from 1991 and 1992, the myth that violent juvenile crime was on the rise prevailed. In a special session called by Governor Roy Romer, the Colorado State Legislature responded with unprecedented resolve and put in place mandatory sentencing laws. District Attorneys were also given the ability to direct file adult charges against juvenile offenders.

Fanned by such events as the Columbine High School shootings in 1999, public concern grew and District Attorney’s further exercised their power of direct file, bypassing the juvenile court system. Today, there are almost 50 convicts who committed crimes as juveniles, but were sentenced as adults to life without parole. In spite of a growing body of evidence that children are simply different from adults, District Attorneys continue to mete out cruel and unusual punishments to young people under the offensive mantra of “adult time for adult crime.”

Punishing children for political gain is wrong, but if you question whether district attorneys motives are political, you need look no further than the overly familiar relationship between DAs and organizations claiming to represent victims. While the clamor from District Attorneys and their paid supporters will certainly raise the spectral question, “But what if they become violent again,” there is also new evidence that all offenders age out of criminal behavior.

According to the first report in an ongoing study at Stanford University even those who commit the most violent crimes have less than a 1% recidivism rate. In fact, out of 860 prisoners serving life sentences in California only 5 of those released on parole committed a new offense. None of those offenses warranted a second life sentence. To underscore the point, the likelihood that a child convicted of felony murder will ever kill someone intentionally is zero.

It costs the state of Colorado $28,000 per year to house each of its offenders. Over their lifetimes, that means Colorado will spend just under $100 Million to hold those children serving life without parole. Nationally, that means we will spend almost $4 Billion to incarcerate children who could become productive members of society.

The goal of our justice system used to be corrections, not punishment. That’s why most prison systems in the United States include rehabilitation in their mission statements. A sentence of life without parole for a child, no matter how egregious their mistakes, serves only the purpose of vengeance. Vengeance is NOT justice and it is high time that those offenders who have aged out of their criminal behavior or who have been otherwise rehabilitated be released. It isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the fiscally responsible thing to do.

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