In 1987, as crime rates nationwide began to rise, Texas began “blended sentences” for juveniles convicted of serious crimes, says the Rocky Mountain News, concluding a four-day series on penalties for violent juvenile crime. Juveniles convicted of serious crimes could begin their time in the juvenile system, then transfer at age 21 into adult prisons where – depending on their progress – they could serve up to 40 years before becoming eligible for parole. “That’s what gives (an inmate) motivation. He can’t just sit on his hands,” said Neil Nichols of the Texas Youth Commission.
Advocates of sentencing reform for juveniles say that sort of system gives young criminals a chance to mature, making them better candidates for rehabilitation. Sentencing teenagers to life without parole “goes against a long history in this country of believing in the capacity of society to rehabilitate people when they still are young. This is why we had a separate juvenile justice system,” said psychologist Laurence Steinberg of Temple University. Ahmad Nelms, 23, a former gang member convicted of killing a Denver man in 1999 when he was 17, said his views have changed significantly in the six years he’s spent behind bars. Because he was charged as an adult in Colorado and found guilty of first-degree murder, Nelms was automatically sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. Until Sept. 1, that wouldn’t have happened in Texas. A new law allows life without parole for young Texas murderers.