How should society treat its youngest criminal offenders and the families of the vicims? The Christian Science Monitor says that half a dozen states are weighing these questions, as they consider whether to ban life sentences for juveniles that don’t include a option for parole – and whether those now serving such sentences should have a retroactive shot at parole. Proposed Illinois legislation would give 103 people – most convicted of unusually brutal crimes – a chance at parole hearings, while outlawing life terms for future young perpetrators. Victims’ families are angry that killers they had been told were in prison for life might be given a shot at release. They may need to attend regular hearings, reliving old traumas, to argue for keeping the criminals behind bars.
Critics say the U.S. is the only nation with anyone – nearly 2,400 in all – serving such a severe sentence for a crime committed as a juvenile. They criticize the fact that the sentence is often mandatory, part of a system devoid of leniency for a teenager’s lack of judgment, or hope that youth can be reformed. The sentence is automatic for certain crimes in more than half of all states, resulting from “get tough” laws aimed at cracking down on rising crime in the 1980s and ’90s. Judges often have little to no discretion. In many instances, they are prohibited from considering age or even whether the juvenile was the one who pulled the trigger. About a quarter of the juveniles serving life without parole were convicted of “felony murder,” participating in a felony in which murder was committed, but not doing the actual killing.