At the end of November I attended the Second Look Summit in Austin. The focus was on legislation to be considered in the upcoming session that would change current law that requires teens, and others, to “serve” have their sentence before parole eligibility. The Second Look bill would offer first parole review after 20 years. Far more, in my opinion than is necessary. The Model Penal Code, recently updated by the American Law Institute, recommends 15 years as a the new standard. Even that puts everyone in the same basket.
SECOND LOOK SUMMIT: Part 4
At age 17, Aaron yielded to the impulse to avenge the murder of his lifelong friend but failed to do what the State of Texas does with forethought and efficiency…..get an eye for an eye. The prosecutor could have charged him with what he actually did, aggravated assault or attempted murder. That would have resulted in a possible prison sentence of 2 to 20 years. Instead, the prosecutor decided he wanted to “send a message to the community” and chose to charge him with organized criminal activity.
The prosecutor ignored the fact that Aaron’s criminal history was one ticket for driving without a seat belt and another for driving too slow. As an immature, first time offender, the outcome of Aaron’s trial would have been different had he been able to afford a team of highly qualified lawyers. It would, mostly likely, have been quite different if it took place in a different county or today, after U.S Supreme Court decisions that state that kids should not be treated as if they are adults. But those possibilities did not exist and he was sentenced to 50 years. The murderer was later sentenced to 30 years. Go figure.
Aaron’s story is just one of many. Astonishingly harsh sentences were common in the 90’s, a “tough on crime” era that saw hundreds of juveniles treated like adults. Combine that with laws that require half the sentence to be served and what we have today is hundreds of prisoners who have long since aged out of criminal behavior, with proven track records of pro-social behavior, and no prospects for earned release.
The costs of such laws are enormous and they do little to enhance public safety. The Second Look bills to be considered in the next session offer a long needed, if less than robust, remedy to excessive sentences for juveniles.
Changes in the way prosecutors deal with cases before them is critical to insure that justice is equally and fairly available to all. Here’s a provocative talk by a prosecutor about how that can be done.