Rethink life without parole for juvenile offenders

By Michael Kessler

I did some dumb things before I finished high school. You probably did, too. So did every single one of my friends. Although I certainly admit nothing, some of the things I did were even criminal acts.

It was not that any of us was inherently or incurably evil. We were just immature, and the risk-avoidance parts of our brains were not fully developed yet. In fact, according to Jay Niedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, the frontal part of the brain, the part that controls judgment, organizing, planning and strategic thinking, is not fully developed until well into one’s 20’s. As a result, before young people reach that age, their ability to understand the consequences of their actions, to themselves as well as to others, is still under development.

Most of us survived our teenage mistakes. Most of us did not repeat those mistakes once we reached our 20’s, 30’s and beyond. Most of us have gone on to lead law-abiding and productive lives. Most, not all.

Some never had that chance, and never will, because they have been condemned to prison for the rest of their lives with no possibility of parole.

There are more than 2,500 juvenile offenders serving life without parole. Most, of course, are for murder. Even so, America stands alone in imposing such a penalty for offenses committed by kids under 18. By contrast, the maximum penalty in Germany for a crime committed by a minor is 10 years; in Italy, 24.

There are just more than 100 people in the entire world serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles during which no one died. All are in the United States; 77 in Florida. Florida is one of only eight states with juvenile offenders serving life without parole for non-homicide crimes.

Championing this draconian and barbaric treatment of our wayward children is State Rep. William R. Snyder, who believes that children “have to be treated and punished as adults” when they “cross the line” and commit serious crimes.

Soon, the U.S. Supreme Court may tell Mr. Snyder he’s wrong.

Recently, the court heard arguments in two cases involving teenagers sentenced to life without parole for crimes that did not result in anyone’s death. Their claim is that life without the possibility of parole for non-homicide crimes committed by minors violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In 2005, the court came to the same conclusion when it prohibited the execution of juveniles. There, the court found such an extreme penalty to be cruel and unusual, in part because teenagers are immature, irresponsible, susceptible to peer pressure and, most important, often capable of change.

“People do things at 16 and 17 that they would not do at 37, but they spend a lifetime paying for it,” Snyder says.

No, Mr. Snyder, that’s just wrong.

We should not throw these children away. We should not condemn them to die in prison without any chance for redemption and parole.

Children should not be forced to spend their entire lives paying for the mistakes of their youth.

Kessler, a board-certified criminal trial lawyer, lives in Vero Beach