SOLUTIONS FOR YOUTHFUL OFFENDERS
Our nation is beginning to recognize the need to address the unfair and irrational practice of giving the youngest offenders the greatest amount of time in prison. Sentencing the least mentally developed to unforgiving prison terms like natural life sentences without the possibility of parole is finally being acknowledged as unacceptable to a civilized society.
All across America the recognition is being made by citizens who have joined organizations and objectives like that of Society-First and the Emerging Adult Justice Project where they are focused on finding solutions to lengthy incarceration for our youngest offenders. They seek to show how states are trying to address the ever multiplying crimes committed by the adolescent (under 18) and emerging adults (ages of 18-25), while ensuring the lowest recidivism rates possible.
States are presenting legislation that is geared at providing these young offenders a meaningful opportunity to find redemption from a past wrong that many times was the product of a moment's impulsivity. This new ideology gives the emerging adult an opportunity at early release through mechanisms such as parole and sentence reduction opportunities that essentially judge the youthful offender by who they have become, rather than who they were.
As Natalie Behr (a law and policy intern at the Columbia Justice Lab) points out, the emerging adults are viewed as less culpable and more malleable by virtue of their age. She along with the others from the Emerging Adult Justice Project have developed a factsheet (see, eajustice.org) that depicts how some of these mechanisms operate.
Their factsheet examines discretionary ''youth parole statutes'' in states like California and Illinois, while also looks at legislation that establishes ''court resentencing hearings'' in Washington D.C. and Florida. These potential solutions are in response to a growing body of scientific evidence regarding the developmental differences between young people and the fully developed adult.
These viable policy changes derive from the belief that the youthful offender, more than any other, is ideal for personal growth and rehabilitation. The ability to ''review a case after a young person has served a substantial period of incarceration and can show maturity and improvement'' is what these new implementations would provide systems that have failed to take growth into account.
The evidence of giving youthful offenders a meaningful opportunity to redeem themselves can bee seen in the recidivism rate of states who have implemented such mechanisms:
The CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) has reported that of the 815 who have been released through youthful offender parole hearings from August 2016 through July 2018, they have virtually all stayed recidivism free. Only 2 out of 346 (0.6 percent) the first year and 2 out of 445 (0.4 percent) the second year have been reconvicted of a new crime.
At a low end of 20 thousand dollars per inmate (per year) this is a savings of 16.3 million dollars every single year... and 163 million dollars every ten years. The contrast is even more eyepopping when one compares these percentages with the overall 2 year reconviction rate (35 percent) of all individuals released from felony sentences in California the previous year. A percentage increase from 1 to 35 percent is an increase that we cannot afford as it is a 34 percent increase to our being victimized all over again.
In 2018, Illinois enacted a slightly different structure as it capped the youthful offender age at 21 years old, which allows an individual who committed their crime before 21 the ability to petition the Prisoner Review Board for early release on parole after serving 10 years, or after serving 20 years if convicted of aggravated criminal sexual assault or first degree murder (there are certain exceptions).
PROPOSED LEGISLATION FOR YOUTHFUL OFFENDERS
There are numerous other states and districts who are looking at following suit by giving meaningful opportunity to the least mentally developed of our society. In Washington D.C. and Florida the focus has been on looking at alternative approaches to parole by creating sentence reduction opportunities through the court system, and though this is ripe to overload an already overwhelmed court system it is still showing promise in the most unforgiving landscapes.
In Washington D.C., the evidence can clearly be seen by looking at the early outcomes of their 2016 ''Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act'' (IRAA). The zero percent... yes, zero percent recidivism rate of the 41 individuals (out of 49 who petitioned) that was granted early release surely establishes the positive impact that can come with giving a second chance to the youngest offenders.
Now, to close out with Florida is like closing out with the biggest elephant to ever enter the room, and yet even the state that has more Life sentences than California, Texas, New York, Alabama, and Georgia (combined!!) has brought legislation to the table that is geared at giving a second chance to the youngest offenders within its criminal justice system.
The fact that we are finally taking notice of the developmental differences between adolescents and fully matured adults is a fact long overdo. It is clearly evident that they have both a reduced level of culpability and a greater capacity for rehabilitation and growth... The real question is whether we as a society can follow their lead.