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Juvenile offenders deserve second chance

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 24, 2009 7:29 AM

As our law currently suggests, the behavior of a person when he or she is a minor is likely to reflect the way in which this person will behave as an adult. A 17-year-old marijuana addict and occasional Ecstasy user will no doubt move on to more advanced drugs by the time he or she reaches the age of 30. And the 14-year-old who lives for the thrill of covering the walls of public businesses with graffiti will probably move on to more severe criminal activities by early adulthood. This is, at least, what our treatment of juvenile delinquents would imply. An adolescent who commits any sort of serious crime is thrown into jail for life without any hope for pardon.

Senate File 74 seeks to change the way the law treats juvenile delinquents. Sponsored by Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, the legislation would give juveniles who are sentenced to life in prison a chance to apply for a review, conducted by the Iowa Board of Parole, after they have served 15 years in prison. Those juvenile offenders who are eligible for a review would be allowed to reapply every two years after the initial 15-year waiting period.

According to a February 15th article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the Iowa Department of Corrections reports that Iowa has 21 inmates serving life sentences who entered prison as juveniles. Another 18 of those inmates committed their crimes when they were juveniles but turned 18 before being sent to prison. Out of those 21 juveniles who were sentenced to life in prison, 19 were convicted of first-degree murder, and the other two were convicted of first-degree kidnapping.
Inmates who were booked for life in prison as juveniles should be given a chance to redeem themselves as adults. Many of them have committed serious crimes, and some have committed crimes as serious as murder. However, young adults are not always able to reason in the same manner in which an adult would reason. Juveniles have a more difficult time grasping the consequences of their actions. In the time between adolescence and adulthood, the brain matures immensely, and there are probably few people who would argue that they are the same person now that they were as a teen. This is why sentencing juvenile offenders to life in prison with no chance for parole is excessive.

Every day, hundreds of prisoners are released. Countless thieves, scammers, and sex offenders re-enter the world, their criminal slates wiped clean. Many would argue that a person who commits first-degree murder should be punished much more severely than a person who robs a bank in a nonviolent way. Human life is, indeed, irreplaceable. But it isn’t right to assume that the emotional scars a person who was molested as a child is forced to deal with as an adult are any less significant than the emotions a family endures after one of its members is murdered. A woman who is raped must deal with the same pain as the family of the slain, although we typically don’t treat these cases in the same manner.

And not to be ignored are the monumental rates of incarceration in the United States. Our prisons have in many ways become receptacles for those people society just doesn’t want to deal with. Despite the fact that we continue building more prisons because we lack space in our current facilities, there are prisoners who could be released — those who committed crimes as juveniles 15 years ago, for example — to make room for the criminals of today. Perhaps Senate File 74 could also help lower the rates of incarceration in the process.

Prisoners who committed crimes as adolescents should be given another chance. We offer second chances to those people who engage in criminal activity as adults. If they can prove to have progressed toward becoming normal, everyday citizens, why not offer the same opportunity to the prisoners who were sentenced to life in prison as teens.


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