Should Juvenile Offenders Spend Their Lives Behind Bars?

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Juveniles are different from adults. Those who commit crimes should be afforded meaningful opportunities for reform and release from prison within their lifetime.

The point was underlined this month by a case brought in Washington state’s Supreme Court concerning the amount of time a person can spend in prison for offenses committed as a juvenile.

On October 20, oral arguments were heard in the case of State v. Haag. The petitioner, Timothy Haag, was 17 when he killed a neighbor, a seven-year-old girl. In 1995, a jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to life without parole.

In a series of cases following his conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court has emphasized that “children are different” from adults for the purpose of criminal punishment, and has incrementally ruled that it violates the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment to impose death or life without parole for most juvenile offenders.

Advances in understanding brain development have revealed that juveniles’ immaturity diminishes their culpability; that young offenders are more vulnerable to outside pressures; and they have increased capacity for reform.

In Miller v. Alabama (2012), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment bars sentencing schemes that mandate life without parole in cases where a juvenile is convicted of homicide. In a Miller-fix resentencing hearing, Haag was sentenced to a minimum of 46 years and a maximum term of life, making him first eligible for release at age 63.

He appealed to the state supreme court, arguing that Miller was improperly applied in his case, and that his sentence amounts to de facto life in prison.

In response to the U.S. Supreme Court rulings, states have interpreted the sentencing schemes in divergent ways. Some states have embraced the underlying rationale from the U.S. Supreme Court decisions, while others have narrowly carved out exceptions.

The Washington State Supreme Court should follow the path set by the U.S. Supreme Court, scientific advances in brain development, and policy considerations to limit lengthy and de facto life sentences.

Haag argued that his lengthy sentence is the functional equivalent of life without parole, since he has no opportunity for release consideration before age 63. The state has pointed to life expectancy data that he could be released within his natural life, but the use of actuarial life expectancy tables is not the proper starting point. The tables reflect group-based differences, such as gender and race, such that members of a certain group may face longer or shorter sentences merely due to heritable traits.

Rather than focusing on what constitutes de facto life sentences, the court should focus on the science and the public policy considerations.

Public policy dictates that long sentences dissuade juvenile offenders from striving for rehabilitation and maturing into responsible adults. The court should explicitly recognize the role for earlier sentence reviews, regardless of the offense for which the juvenile was convicted.

Washington law already provides guidance for a minimum sentence with review at 20 or 25 years, depending on the underlying crime. Although I would argue that 20 or 25 years is too long in some cases, the concept of release eligibility occurring with meaningful opportunities for the detainee to work toward release is supported by scientific research.

Jennifer Piel

Jennifer Piel

Research has shown that the seriousness of the juvenile’s offense is not a reliable predictor of future criminal behavior.

A shorter time period before eligibility for release does not mean that persons who remain violent will be released. Rather, it recognizes that “children are different” in their capacity for reform. Meaningful review of progress toward maturity provides an incentive for juvenile offenders to work toward reform.

Lengthy or de facto life sentences before release eligibility not only evade the U.S. Supreme Court’s rationale, but discourage efforts to work toward meaningful rehabilitation. In Haag’s case, 46 years before meaningful review is cruelly long.

Jennifer Piel, MD, JD is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist, and the Director of the University of Washington Center for Mental Health, Policy, and the Law.

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