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'Getting tough' with juvenile offenders forgets about hope

A decade ago we were horrified by violent crime committed by juvenile offenders — children, at least in the legal sense — not to mention weary of a "justice" system that seemed to release kids without so much as a stern talking-to.

So in the sort of overreaction we are prone to, we Got Tough around here, part of getting tough involving how we dole out punishment. Today Florida leads the nation in the number of kids doing life in prison for crimes in which no one died.

That's not life as in: Spend years in prison, come back and we'll take a look at your case to see if you deserve another chance.

That's life as in: You will die behind bars, same as in first-degree murder cases that don't get the death penalty. Which, if you think about it, is a different kind of death sentence.

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering two Florida cases — the rape of an elderly woman and a home invasion by a kid already on probation for burglary — and whether life sentences for juveniles in "nonhomicide" crimes is cruel and unusual punishment.

It's at least unfair.

Four years ago the court banned the death penalty for anyone younger than 18 when the murder was committed, acknowledging immaturity and vulnerability to influence.

The death penalty opinion said this: When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.

Isn't dying in prison sort of like that?

It's important to note no one is advocating a get-out-of-jail free card for teenage criminals, just a chance.

During arguments before the Supreme Court earlier this month, some justices suggested that rather than a ban on life-means-life sentences in these cases, judges should factor in age when deciding punishment.

Well, any defense lawyer worth his wing tips already argues the age factor when a young client's life hangs in the balance. And while it might work for some, it sure didn't for a teen named William Thornton, who was sentenced to 30 years for a fatal car accident in Citrus County and who is out now only because people bothered to be outraged about it.

Which is to say our system can be lopsided. Some, like Jordan Valdez, the Davis Islands teenager sentenced this week for leaving the scene of an accident involving death after she hit a homeless woman, are lucky enough to afford good attorneys who pay attention and argue hard. Other children go into our system and disappear.

Children being the key word. They are not fully formed, still growing, still becoming. No one is arguing against harsh sentences for hard-core cases. But the system should give juvenile offenders the chance to be something beyond what put them in prison.

Amid the high court's pondering on the fairness of life sentences for children came an interesting question from Justice Anthony Kennedy:

"Why does a juvenile have a constitutional right to hope, but an adult does not?"

That's another question for another day, but maybe part of the answer is this:

Because hope is something children tend to have, hope and the potential to change.

'Getting tough' with juvenile offenders forgets about hope 11/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 26, 2009 8:42pm]
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