Last night, my husband and I were watching the evening news. There was a story about the differences between America and Britain’s sentencing of children and young teenagers who commit crimes. Centering mostly on crimes like murder, accessory to murder, and rape–the sentence for non-adults in most states in America is life without parole. In Britain, depending on circumstances, this can be downgraded to life with chance of parole or even less time served. The question asked by the journalist was basically, ‘Do young criminals who are sentenced to life deserve a second chance?’
Admittedly, the judicial system in both countries isn’t perfect. Take Florida for example–where a 16-year old who was an accessory to armed robbery and murder was given life without parole because he was there. He didn’t pull the trigger. He DID choose to be there, however, so some sentence should have been laid on him, undoubtedly, but life? Without parole?
The above was one of the features the news used. One of the other stories focused on the life sentence of a 14-year old who, with an older friend, car jacked a woman and her two young daughters. They drove, pulled over, raped the mother and shot her in the head. Then they drove some miles up the road, shot the girls and threw them into a nearby river. Miraculously, in a sense, the mother survived. But she has to live everyday with what those kids did, especially the fact that she’ll never see her daughters alive again. In the interview with the culprit, he apologised and said that was all he had to give now. The victim said she believed him, but didn’t think he deserved to live again, when her children couldn’t.
I admit I know little about the federal and state by state judicial system. I do know that within the last year or so, states such as Florida have begun to reconsider their sentencing laws. This means that they might give lighter sentences to crimes which are not murder. Also, that they are considering offering more in-jail counseling for younger inmates.
The United States has currently and fairly recently banned the death penalty for juveniles convicted of crimes like murder. In the Supreme Court’s decision, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said teenagers were different, at least for purposes of the ultimate punishment. They are immature and irresponsible. They are more susceptible to negative influences, including peer pressure. And teenagers’ personalities are unformed. “Even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile,” Justice Kennedy concluded, is not “evidence of irretrievably depraved character.”
All in all, I believe reforms and more counselling are a good thing. I don’t think someone should get life imprisonment because they wanted to hijack a car, steal someone’s purse, and then their friend kills that person. Jail time, certainly, a good amount of it. But life? No. However, for crimes like murder, I’m not sure how I feel about age being a factor. If you’re 14–you know that murder is wrong, especially when you take a gun out with you. Accidental murder, manslaughter, might be treated differently. It’s still murder, though. Someone made a choice to, say, beat the crap out of someone else…and then just keep going, not caring if the other never woke up. If you rape someone, shoot them, and then shoot more people–that’s multiple homicide and there should be no going back from that. For some crimes, jail time can possibly serve double-duty–as a punishment and a chance for rehabilitation. Should murderers be given that opportunity–even if they’re young? Sure teenagers are more irresponsible, more prone to making rash decisions, more susceptible to peer pressure even, but that doesn’t make them totally stupid. It doesn’t mean they don’t have the ability to be rational, non-violent, or responsible. I think saying that teens are immature and irresponsible is a cop-out. The decisions we make then help decide who we are later. We all might have changed somewhat since we were younger, but are we completely different, morals and all? Most of the case studies, and even the news story mentioned above, were quick to illustrate that some of these teens had horrible times growing up. Is that experience easier to handle when you’re older? Maybe. Maybe it changes you forever, no matter what you do. How is, say, 20 years of learning and growing all that different when your 16 from when your 26?
The journalist asked the two men if they thought they deserved another shot–they both replied affirmatively, although with enough grace to understand that what they did was inexcusable. Deserve is not the right word. Would these men be able to live a life on the outside–without committing these same types of crime? I believe they would. That’s not the same as deserving it. I find that I agree with the victim who lost her daughters–her children won’t get to have another shot, why should their murderer?
What do you think? Should juveniles who commit crimes like murder be given lighter sentences because they’re younger?