Michael Cooks gunned down two men in Illinois at the age of 14. Now 32, after serving more than half of his life in prison, he says he has grown into a different person than the boy who pulled the trigger, says the Chicago Tribune. Whether he is truly rehabilitated is largely moot; he was sentenced to serve the rest of his life in prison and has no possibility of parole–one of at least 103 Illinois inmates serving sentences of natural life for crimes committed before their 18th birthday.
In Illinois and other states, some want to give these inmates a shot at parole. Juvenile justice advocates argue that youthful offenders are less culpable for their actions than adults. Science shows that a juvenile’s brain is not fully developed and is less capable of resisting peer pressure and controlling impulsive behaviors. Advocates also say teenage offenders are more open to rehabilitation than older, more hardened criminals. Supporters of the natural life sentence say it is only used for the most violent youthful offenders. They argue that it serves not only as a just punishment for heinous crimes but also assures that the offenders will never kill again — at least not outside prison. The U.S. is one of only 13 countries where offenders under 18 are eligible for a natural life sentence, says Amnesty International. “There tends to be a lag between crime rates, trends, and the public mood,” said law Prof. Franklin Zimring of the University of California at Berkeley. “Things have calmed down in the country, and that does give states and localities more flexibility than the hard-line orthodoxy of the mid-1990s.”