In this day and age of neurobiology (understanding of brain chemistry and neuro-anatomy), it is shocking to have an organization such as the Heritage Foundation release a report called “Adult Time for Adult Crimes – Life Without Parole for Juvenile Killers and Violent Teens.”
It is not “compassionate conservatism;” it shows a lack of knowledge in regard to basic brain development.

I am not so naïve that I believe if a juvenile commits murder at 16 years old, that the day he or she reaches 21 they should be a get-out-of-jail-free card. But life sentences for a child or teen that commits an act of even horrendous violence when they are a teenager? Why keep them in for life? It is highly improbable that a disturbed young person who is in the prison system 24/7 can control his or her behavior for years at a time to “fool” the prison staff that they are remorseful and non-violent when they actually are not. There are cases where people have been freed and then commit horrible crimes, but juveniles are generally studied and evaluated frequently while incarcerated. By the time they reach adulthood, the criminal justice system knows a lot about them. The offenders who remain capable of violence years after committing the crime should be placed in a humane and structured prison/mental hospital facility.

According to the Heritage Foundation report, 43 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have laws allowing for life without parole for juveniles. Although I think these laws in themselves are horrendous, why, if it is law in a super majority of states, is this is an issue now? The Heritage report states that it is because there is coordinated lobbying going on to change this. Maybe that is true, but more likely it is another way for conservatives to get on the “tough on crime” bandwagon as it always stirs up the base. It worked in California and drove voters to the polls. California prisons are now filled beyond human capacity due to the three strikes law. They can’t afford to keep their prison system in operation, but the voters were happy that California would not be “soft on crime.”

This entire proposal ignores how these young people became violent in the first place. Authors Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley in their book about violent and murderous juveniles, “Ghosts From the Nursery,” studied incarcerated young people. They write, “We can see that there are many kinds of ghosts from the nursery. Some result from biological factors such as head injuries or learning disabilities. Others emerge from familial experiences such as child abuse, domestic violence, or the impact of maternal depression or rejection. As children grow older, larger societal factors, such as chronic community violence, may compound the damage from earlier experiences. One factor by itself rarely creates antisocial outcomes in human development … a majority take root in the nursery, where few people are looking.”

The fact is that most juveniles who commit crimes have been abused, dropped or shaken in their early years or may have some congenital form of mental illness. That does not translate to the notion that society should let offenders out to roam free. It does mean that giving a life sentence to a juvenile is not justice; it is barbaric.

A psychologist I know said the rental car companies are about the only entities that understand brain development. They don’t rent cars to people who are younger than 25. The part of the brain that makes thoughtful decisions is not fully developed until the mid-20s. Therefore, putting someone in jail for life at the age of 16 or younger makes no sense except to the “tough on crime” crowd.

My advice is for the authors of the Heritage Foundation report to spend some time learning and understanding the roots of violent behavior and to study brain development before they continue to tout “life without parole” for even the most violent criminal acts by adolescents. Our laws that allow 14-year-olds to be incarcerated for life are at odds with other Western countries and put us in the company of countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. Hopefully those are not countries we want to emulate in terms of how they treat other humans. It is time our criminal justice system adjusted itself to what we know about human behavior and the brain. It is time we acted based on science and not just pure retribution.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.