Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Give Lifers, sentenced as "KIDS", a SECOND "chance"

http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20090225/OPINION03/902250351/-1/NEWS04

February 25, 2009
Give lifers sentenced as kids second chance
The Register's editorial

Everyone knows that children do stupid and risky things. These acts are usually dismissed as youthful indiscretions, and the kids get a chance to move on with their lives. If the act violates the law, however, it can mean criminal or prison records. In extreme cases in Iowa and 42 other states, it can mean a sentence to an agonizingly slow death behind bars.

In Iowa, the state can prosecute boys or girls as young as age 14 as adults, and conviction could result in a life sentence. Advocates of juvenile-justice reform want to give another chance to at least some of those serving life sentences for crimes committed when the offenders were juveniles, and a bill has been introduced in the Iowa Legislature to make that possible. It should become law.

Life in prison may be a reasonable sentence for an adult in control of his or her faculties who commits a heinous crime, such as premeditated murder, kidnapping or brutally violent rape. Death-penalty opponents point to Iowa's life-without-parole sentence in first-degree murder cases as a better alternative than capital punishment.

In some crimes, however, life in prison may be excessive - manufacturing illegal drugs, for example - particularly if the crime was committed by a juvenile, with a far from fully developed mind. There is scientific evidence that even older teenagers have not achieved the same level of mental development as adults. Yet, in certain felonies, including certain drug and sex crimes, a life sentence without possibility of parole is mandatory under Iowa law.

It must be a special hell for a youngster not yet old enough to shave to face a lifetime in prison, to grow up and to grow old and eventually to die, with no hope of release. This fits the definition of cruel, if not unusual, in almost every culture. Indeed, according to an August 2008 University of San Francisco Law Review article, "there is only one country in the world today that continues to sentence child offenders to life-without-parole terms: the United States." As of last year, there were at least 2,484 inmates serving such sentences in this country.

Although there is an effort to abolish the practice in the United States, the legislation under consideration by the Iowa Legislature would not go that far. It would, instead, allow men or women serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles to apply for parole or work release after serving at least 15 years. Applications would be reviewed by the Iowa Board of Parole, which would consider applicants' criminal history, behavior record while in prison, potential for rehabilitation and likelihood of committing new crimes if released.

The attorney general and any victims would have the opportunity to testify. And, decisions of the parole board could be challenged before an administrative law judge, or in state district court.

Even if this legislation is passed, it's not likely to be used often. According to a legislative staff report, Iowa prisons hold 42 inmates serving life sentences for offenses committed when they were under age 18. All 42 were convicted of murder or kidnapping in the first degree. Of those, only 19 will have served for 15 years by the time this bill could become law.

Still, the state should give prison inmates this option, even if it leads to the salvaging of only a few lives from a long and slow death sentence issued when they were still children.

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(Posted in the interest of "justice" & PUBLIC AWARENESS/authors/copyrights acknowledged/NO infringement intended)

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