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States Soften 'Adult Time For Adult Crimes' Stance

For more than 20 years, state legislatures have come down increasingly hard on criminal minors, insisting that they do "adult time for adult crimes." But some states are starting to rethink that approach.

Texas, for example, enacted a law last year prohibiting juveniles who have not committed murder from being sentenced to life without any chance of parole -- well before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such sentences unconstitutional on Monday.

"In many cases, we believe in second chances for kids," says Jerry Madden, a Texas state representative. "There's still a chance to work with juveniles."


Madden is a Republican who has worked with Democrats in rewriting state laws regarding juvenile offenders.

There's mounting evidence that suggests juveniles should not be held as culpable as adults because their physical and emotional development is not complete. There are also studies showing that minors who are sentenced and incarcerated in adult systems are more likely to commit further crimes -- and more violent crimes -- than those in juvenile systems.

As a result, states -- and the Supreme Court -- are starting to move away from ever-more punitive penalties for minors. "It's happening in Texas," says Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a liberal group in Austin. "And nobody could ever call Texas soft on crime, ever."

In many cases, we believe in second chances for kids. There's still a chance to work with juveniles.

Issues Surrounding Maturity

Graham v. Florida represented the first time that the Supreme Court has ruled that an entire category of sentencing -- outside of the death penalty -- violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The case was a sequel, of sorts, to the court's 2005 ruling in Roper v. Simmons that banned the death penalty for juvenile offenders.


In both cases, the court pointed to signs that minors are not as responsible for their actions as adults. Advanced brain scans show that the parts of the brain that allow people to think through the likely consequences of an action and weigh the risks and benefits of acting on impulse aren't fully formed until 25 -- much later than had been previously thought.

"A life without parole sentence improperly denies the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court's majority opinion.

The brain scans have gotten a lot of attention, but other data have probably been more influential among legislators. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that youths who had previously been tried as adults were 34 percent more likely to commit another crime than those who went through the juvenile justice system. And crimes committed by juveniles, as measured by arrests, have been going down consistently for 15 years.

States Peel Back Some Penalties

A few states have now softened penalties for minors. Like Texas, Colorado has eliminated sentences of life without parole for juveniles, although it still allows mandatory minimum sentences of up to 40 years. At the beginning of this year, Connecticut ended its policy of treating all offenders 16 and older as adults.

But there has not been a wholesale shift away from treating violent youths as adults. "When you're talking about extremely dangerous violent offenses committed by older teens, there's a general trend to treat them as adults in America," says Joshua Marquis, district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore.

Marquis doesn't think the Supreme Court's ruling will change that. He says that he and other prosecutors "are not terribly disappointed in this decision," precisely because it is fairly limited in scope.

The court's decision applies directly only to 129 offenders -- 77 of them in Florida, where the Graham case originated. The decision does not address the question of whether life without parole would be an unconstitutional punishment if given to juveniles who commit murder. And it allows long sentences for nonhomicides, so long as there is a mechanism to review the punishment at some point.

"The number of criminal defendants who were affected was quite small," says Franklin Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "The way in which their sentences were affected takes place in the distant future and doesn't really guarantee any time of release."

Making A 'Down Payment'

Still, Zimring says, "It's a very important down payment on a more activist Supreme Court limiting what governments can do in the punishment of offenders. This is a down payment on what the court might do two or three judges down the line."

Other advocates for less onerous juvenile justice laws see the court's willingness to strike down certain types of punishment for juveniles as symptomatic of the broader trend already seen among states.

"In a symbolic sense, it's a strong statement from the court that kids are different," says Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a liberal group. "It just legitimizes the whole perspective that academics and practitioners have had for years, which now has certification from the court."

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