Conservative Republicans support SB 9 and second chances for youth.
San Diego Union-Tribune: Giving teen offenders chance at parole is just By Newt Gingrich & Pat Nolan
We did some dumb things as teenagers that might have caused a lot of harm. You probably did,
too. Fortunately, we didn’t hurt anyone too badly, but we cringe now at how
clueless we were about the possible consequences of what we did.
Teenagers often don’t make very good decisions. Our laws take this into account in many ways:
We don’t let young people drink until they are 21, and they can’t sign
contracts, vote or serve on juries until they are 18.
But there is one area in which we ignore teens’ youth and impulsiveness: our criminal laws. Our
laws often ignore the difference between adults and teens, and some youngsters
are sentenced to life in prison without parole (LWOP). Despite urban legends to
the contrary, this law has no exceptions: A teen sentenced to LWOP will die in
prison as an old man or woman. No exceptions for good behavior, no exceptions
period. No hope.
You might expect that these LWOP sentences are limited to the “worst of the worst,”
but that is not the case. A young teen can be a bit player in a crime, e.g.,
act as a lookout while his buddies go in to steal beer from a convenience
store. None of them is armed, and there is no plan for violence. Then it all
goes haywire. The clerk pulls a gun, and one of the kids tries to grab it away.
In the struggle that ensues, the gun goes off and the clerk dies.
Under California’s “felony murder” rule, every person involved in that
crime, no matter how minor their role, is equally guilty of murder, even if
they did not plan or expect a murder to occur. According to the fiction of our
law, the lookout is as much to blame as the person who pulled the trigger.
About 45 percent of the inmates serving LWOP for a teenage crime were not the
person who caused the death. Yet they will die in prison of old age, with no
chance for release.
But should these youngsters die in prison for something they did when they were so young?
Wouldn’t it be better to re-evaluate them after serving a long stretch in
prison and consider whether they have matured and improved themselves?
We are conservative Republicans, and we believe that some people are so dangerous that
we must separate them from our communities. That is what prisons are for. But
sometimes we overuse our institutions. California’s teen LWOP is an overuse of
incarceration. It denies the reality that young people often change for the
better. And it denies hope to those sentenced under it.
Of course, not every young person going through the system turns his or her life around. But
wouldn’t it be better to at least consider whether these inmates have matured
and improved themselves after a long stretch in prison? SB 9, which is now on
Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, would allow the court to give this narrow group of
inmates convicted of a crime while a teen a chance to apply for parole – after
serving 25 years in prison. That is no “easy stretch.” And even then, they
will not be automatically released. They must show the parole board that they
have participated in programs that prepare them to support themselves and stay
on the straight and narrow when they are released. They must convince the
parole board that they are remorseful and have changed so they no longer pose a
threat to the community. Only then might they be given a parole date.
Jesus told us to “Do unto others” as we would have them do unto us. Shouldn’t we give
the kids and grandkids of others the same second chances that we would want for
our own families?
An inherent principle of justice is that the punishment should never exceed the harm done
by the crime. It is wrong to condemn these inmates to die in prison for being
the teenage accomplice to the terrible acts of another. We urge Gov. Brown to
sign SB 9, and thereby restore the chance for these inmates to transform their
lives and become good citizens.
Gingrich was speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from
1995 to 1999 and is the founder of American Solutions. Nolan was Republican
leader of the California State Assembly from 1984 to 1988 and is president of
Justice Fellowship (justicefellowship.org)
(c) Copyright 2012
The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.
September 20, 2012