California hit a milestone this month with the first release under new laws of a man sentenced as a teenager to life without parole. Edel Gonzalez was 16 at the time of his crime and spent nearly 24 years in prison.
California’s new laws recognize that juveniles are different from adults. We know that a 16-year-old has tremendous capacity to grow and change, and not be defined by his or her worst act. These laws allowed Edel to express his deep remorse for a murder and prove over many years that he had grown far beyond the immature teen who took part in that crime.
But these laws are back-door fixes to a front-door problem. The real problem is the flow of young people into adult prison for life and near-life sentences.
California law allows those as young as 14 to be tried and sentenced as adults. One might think that the decision to remove a youth from the juvenile justice system would always be made by a judge who carefully considers the severity of the offense, as well as the potential for rehabilitation.
In fact, a judge does not make the decision in most cases. Instead, for most youths who end up in adult court, it was a prosecutor who decided, with no hearing or judicial consideration. And prosecutors typically have to decide quickly, without access to or the ability to collect essential information about the youth.