August 10, 2018
The War on Kids Post #5
In my last substantive guest post on Sentencing, Law & Policy, I’d like to address some of the juvenile justice reform measures that I think are achievable and worth pursuing in the post-Miller era. In the book, I devote a whole chapter to the reform frontier, and I refer to these measures as part of a war for kids.
Put kids back in juvenile court
For most of the 20th century, it was difficult and rare to move a child into adult court; juvenile court was the default for juveniles. We only moved away from that model because of fear-based and now-debunked theories about juvenile super-predators. As I mentioned in my first guest post, transfer laws have exposed juveniles to sentences that were drafted with adults in mind, including mandatory minimums and decades-long terms. Given what we know about adolescent brain development, and given that the Supreme Court has held that children are different for constitutional purposes, we should return to the default of keeping kids in juvenile court. Even in such a regime, a judge could still determine that extraordinary circumstances warranted transfer to adult court. But those rare, outlier cases should not dictate the norm for juveniles. Today, in the wake of the Miller trilogy, there is newfound traction to the claim that transfer laws (especially direct file laws) are unconstitutional and nonsensical.
Provide age-appropriate sentencing for juveniles
While children continue to be charged in adult criminal court, advocates should insist upon age-appropriate sentencing for them. At a minimum, this means seeking the abolition of juvenile life without parole, and that goal is on the horizon and achievable. Regardless of whether the Supreme Court declares a categorical ban, states are moving in this direction. Beyond this measure, advocates should insist that youth always be a relevant, mitigating variable at sentencing. In particular, consistent with the science of the Miller trilogy, it means that mandatory minimums should never apply to juveniles. I have made this argument before here, and I do in THE WAR ON KIDS, as well. Two states, Washington and Iowa, have already come to this conclusion, as I mentioned earlier this week.
Argue against incarceration for kids as a general matter
In my mind, a key component of a war for kids is the concept that incarceration is fundamentally damaging for juveniles and that we should avoid it whenever possible. This is perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of my agenda for juvenile justice reform, and I know it is the one that draws the most attention. I regularly hear from people who point to the unspeakable cruelty and violence of adolescents in the news, and I certainly do not claim that no juvenile requires secure detention. What I do claim is that we use correctional institutions in too many instances when we need not and that we do damage to juveniles in the process. As the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s recent report on probation makes clear, there are diversion and probation alternatives that are designed to develop youth and keep them out of the cycle of the correctional system.
Create periodic, youth-informed panels for juvenile sentencing review
Neuroscience tells us that the juvenile brain is developing well into the mid-20’s. This means that, even when youth commit serious crimes, if given the right opportunities at rehabilitation, they can mature and outgrow that criminal behavior. Two things follow from this reality. First, even youth who are sentenced to lengthy term-of-year sentences should be eligible for educational and other rehabilitative programs. How else will they embark on a path to demonstrating maturity and rehabilitation, an opportunity the Supreme Court requires? Second, juvenile sentences – especially lengthy ones – should be reviewed periodically for their ongoing legitimacy. Given that the Supreme Court has elevated youth to be a mitigating quality of constitutional significance, the punishment rationale for juvenile sentences cannot be what it is for similarly situated adults. Ongoing, periodic review for youth offenders can serve as a check against the Court’s concern that states not make a judgment at the outset that juvenile “offenders never will be fit to reenter society.”
It’s worth noting that, in order to secure any of these juvenile-specific measures, we must continue to push for criminal justice reform more broadly. This is harder than ever in some ways. We must vigilantly counter the growing rhetoric that says we are a crime-ridden nation and that urges prosecutors to seek the maximum sentence in all cases. And we must insist upon equality in our criminal justice system – a goal our system has espoused but never achieved.
Thank you, Doug and the Sentencing, Law & Policy community for letting me share my work! CHD
August 10, 2018 at 05:12 PM | Permalink
Thank you for sharing.
Posted by: Daniel | Aug 10, 2018 9:45:03 PM
A great reform agenda. Good luck in pushing this forward into legislation. Much needed and long, long, overdue.
Posted by: peter | Aug 11, 2018 5:43:07 AM