Re-visiting Excessive Teen Prison Sentences

In the upcoming Texas legislative session, the Second Look bill concerning excessive sentences for teenagers will be resubmitted for consideration. That bill, establishing earlier parole eligibility for juveniles sentenced to long prison terms, is supported by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that clearly state that underage youth are different and should not be treated as though they were adults. Every parent knows this and neuroscience research proves that the brains of emerging adults do not mature till the early to mid twenties.

For example, the Second Look bill, as currently written, would offer a prisoner, sentenced to 50 years, a chance at parole after 20 years, rather than ½ the sentence (or 25 years) mandated by current law. My question is: Why, in the face of clear evidence, does the proposed bill set first review at 20 years? While that is a slight improvement over the requirement to serve half the time, it is still another “one size fits all” prescription that, like so many other parts of the system, ignores individual differences. Answer? When it come to dealing with lawbreakers, lawmakers have long been only willing to make very small changes to very big problems.

The last big change in sentencing guidelines occurred at the stroke of midnight on August 31, 1993. That was when anyone convicted of a violent crime was required to serve half their time before parole consideration. Prior to that, the law set minimum time served at ¼ of the sentence. That change was not based on evidence of the effectiveness of long sentences but was largely political. It was a response to public fear of crime that had been inflamed by extensive media coverage of an alleged youth crime wave. Whatever the reason, it was a continuation of the broad-brush approach that has become the accepted way to deal with lawbreakers.

Second Lookers are the current prisoners, convicted as juveniles, during that “tough on crime” era, and sent to adult prisons. Most of them have been there 20 years or more. Many of them have long since matured and outgrown those behaviors that got them in trouble. Questions naturally arise: Is it in the public interest to continue incarceration of inmates who have demonstrated readiness for release? What is the moral or economic justification for keeping those individuals behind bars? Is it finally time to implement the idea that “prisons are for people we’re afraid of, not the ones we’re mad at”?

Second Look is a small step in that direction. Perhaps, in the near future, further changes will be recommended that reflect proposed changes to the Model Penal Code. Since 1960, the MPC has long guided legislator’s decisions regarding criminal justice policy. Now, after 15 years of nationwide research, the American Law Institute is recommending changes to the sentencing portion of the Code. The new position regarding sentencing of juveniles recommends first parole review at 10 years. This is a radical shift but reflects the latest knowledge available about the most appropriate way to deal with juvenile offenders. It fits entirely with this comment from the Chicago office of Human Rights Watch………

“ Youths who commit crimes should be held accountable, but in a way that reflects their capacity for rehabilitation”.

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