Should Children be given a Second Chance? – Life Sentencing for Youth

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.

Unfortunately Sara is typical. Sara Kruzan was raised in Riverside by her abusive mother who was also a drug addict. She met her father only three times in her life, since he was in prison. Starting at the age of 9, Sara suffered from severe depression for which she was hospitalized several times.

At the age of 11, she met a 31-year-old man named “G.G.” who molested her and began grooming her to become a prostitute. By the age of 13, she was working as a child prostitute for G.G. and was repeatedly molested by him until she was 16, when she killed him. Even with a California Youth Authority psychiatric evaluation determining that she was amendable to rehabilitation treatment offered in the juvenile system, Sara was tried as an adult and sentenced to prison for the rest of her life.

Sara isn’t alone. There are nearly 300 juveniles in California currently servicing life sentences. Like Sara, nationally, fifty-nine percent of all juveniles sentenced to life without parole are first time offenders. What does it say about us, about our society when we throw away the life of a child? When we declare at age 14, or 15, or 16 that a child is irredeemable, that there is no such possibility as change, as rehabilitation, as growth, or what we in the Jewish community speak of year in and year out at the High Holy Days, as teshuvah, repentance and redemption?

The United States leads the world in the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole – because it is virtually banned in every industrialized nation EXCEPT the United States. And we are completely out of step with every standard of international law since we are signatories to numerous human rights treaties that specifically prohibit the sentencing of youth to life in prison. Yet we do it over and over and over again knowing that there is no evidence it acts as a deterrent in any way, and along with the wasted life we have now condemned to live and die in prison, as a society we will spend over $40,000 a year, probably totaling $3 million for each and every youth we throw away.

The reality of just how widespread incarceration is as the tool of choice for resolving social conflicts of all kinds in the United States is frightening and tells us something very disturbing about the nature of our society and the fear that seems to drive us. U.S. Justice Department figures show that a record 7 million people – or one in every 32 American adults – were behind bars, on probation or on parole in 2006, and the number is growing.

There are more people behind bars in the United States of America today than in any other country in the world. Currently, over 2.3 million people. That figure has been growing steadily since 1972 and represents a 600% increase over the past 30 years. And the sentences have become longer and harsher. One out of eleven people in prison today is serving a life sentence. In California the ration is one in 6. In fact California has the highest proportion of life sentences relative to the prison population in the country – 20%.

The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. We now imprison more people for drug law violations alone than all of Western Europe, with a much larger population incarcerates for all offenses. Seriously? This is America? Land of the free, home of the brave? More realistically land of the imprisoned and home of the fearful.

The number of individuals serving life-without-parole sentences increased by 22% between 2003 and 2008, nearly four times the rate of growth of the parole-eligible life sentenced population.

This is the legacy of more than three decades of “tough on crime” legislation, determinate sentences and a vastly expanded use of imprisonment to solve social issues. What started out decades ago as a philosophy of rehabilitation so as to help re-enter individuals back into society as contributing members, has devolved completely into a single philosophy of punishment alone. Nothing could be clearer than the first sentence of California’s own penal code section 1170 which states, “The Legislature finds and declares that the purpose of imprisonment for crime is punishment.” Period. And punish we do, often way out of proportion to the offense committed and the sentencing of others involved with the exact same offense.

As Californians, we have the worst racial disparity rate in the nation for sentencing life without parole – black youth are given this sentence at 22 times the rate of white youth for the same crimes. 77% of juveniles sentenced to life are youth of color.

Yes, youth can and do commit terrible crimes. When they do, they should be held accountable and face appropriate punishment. But youth are different from adults; every study shows that youth have a greater capacity for rehabilitation. Young people continue to develop their identity and the direction of their lives into their twenties and beyond.

In fact, recent findings in neuroscience confirm what many parents and teachers have long known: brain maturation is a process that continues through adolescence and into early adulthood, and the issues most relevant to the commission of crimes as juveniles, impulse control, planning, and thinking ahead are skills still in development for at least a decade beyond age 18. According to recent cognitive research those skills don’t fully develop until somewhere between age 25-30. Yet we take children, throw them in prison, and throw their lives away forever.

There is widespread agreement among child development researchers today that young people who commit crimes are more likely to reform their behavior and have a better chance at rehabilitation than adults. Even the Supreme Court agrees—In Roper v. Simmons, in 2005, the Court stated, “From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.”

No one can know definitively what kind of person a 14, 15, 16, or 17-year-old will become. That is why both common sense and the moral imperatives of our faith demand that as a society we find ways to provide youth with meaningful and periodic reviews of their life sentences to ensure that those who can prove they have reformed are given an opportunity to re-enter society as contributing citizens. Anything less is cruel and unusual punishment, barbaric for the 21st century and morally bankrupt as a social policy.

Even as we sit here tonight, the California legislature is still contemplating SB 9, a bill that came within one vote of passing last year that would allow for first offender youth who have been sentenced to life without parole to have their cases reviewed after serving between 10 and 25 years in prison. It’s a complicated formula, but the idea is right, and the idea is just and it should be passed and a glimmer of hope brought into the lives of these children condemned to prison for life.

As outrageous as it sounds, studies show that when a juvenile and an adult are part of the same crime, contrary to common sense, it is often the juvenile who ends up with the harsher, longer, life-without-parole sentence and not the adult. Also contrary to common sense and common perception, many of these youths did not commit murder, never even held a gun.

One young man I met was literally sleeping in the back seat of a car being driven by a friend who unbeknown to the sleeping youth, took out a gun and shot it out the window at someone on the street. Although the intended victim wasn’t killed, and the shooter himself got a significantly lighter sentence, the boy sleeping in the back turned down a deal, insisting he didn’t do anything wrong, and ended up being sentenced to life in prison anyway. Yes, of course I am a bleeding heart liberal, but still that doesn’t sound like “justice” to me.

SB 9 is an opportunity to examine the millions of tax dollars that are used to house thousands of youth for decades in the name of public safety. What is the financial return for California as we invest millions for housing, food, and services so hundreds of juveniles with life sentences will live in California prisons until they are 70, or 80 ... or until they die? We cut education in California regularly and teachers protest as they should. Have you ever seen a California prison guard picket line, or the media pouring over the annual federal or state or county prison budget demanding cuts?

Patricia Foulkrod is a filmmaker who has taught in juvenile facilities for nearly 15 years. In urging the California legislature to pass SB 9 she wrote in the Huffington Post recently the following:

“People always say, “Well it’s their choice.” Is it really? Given the scientific data regarding child and teenage brain development; their lack of critical thinking; poor living situations; absent, incarcerated, or abusive parents; drugs and alcohol; generations of gangs; a system that leaves many boys of color on the brink of manhood but incapable of reading beyond a third grade level; not knowing what the word "hope" means? I think we are all responsible for our actions, and if we do a crime we have to absolutely face the consequences, but many kids in California have obstacles to climb before they get caught up that most of us never see or experience, and despite all the information we have about these kids, is the best solution we can come up with Life without Parole? I was asked in my class in jail what "hope" means. Hope is passing SB 9.”

Let’s stop throwing away the lives of our youth and elevate the nature of our society at the same time. We Jews were perhaps the first people as a civilization whose prophets stood time and time again declaring “Let justice well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Perhaps it’s time to listen to our own wisdom.

(Check out www.rebreuben.com , www.becomingjewishbook.com and www.interfaithrabbi.com for more commentaries, articles and books by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben).