When crimes are com­mit­ted by chil­dren

They must be given an op­por­tu­nity to earn a sec­ond chance

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Alan Simp­son

Ayoung high school stu­dent liv­ing in a small town in North­west Wy­oming fre­quently sought out ways to cause dam­age. From set­ting fire to an aban­doned bar­racks to shooting .22 shells at mail­boxes and rocks, the acts in­tended to wreak havoc and de­stroy prop­erty were dan­ger­ous and could have eas­ily ended up with some­one be­ing se­ri­ously in­jured or worse. With a slight change in the facts, so­ci­ety may have pun­ished the wayward stu­dent for the mis­takes he made then, and he could have spent a long time in the clink. Giv­ing this high school stu­dent a sec­ond chance, how­ever, put him on a re­demp­tive and pro­duc­tive path — one that took him all the way to the U.S. Se­nate.

You see, that young high school stu­dent was me. A tough stupid teen grow­ing up in ru­ral Cody, Wy­oming, I let my emotions and de­sires drive my de­ci­sions and sim­ply did not com­pre­hend the sever­ity of my ac­tions. Only sheer dumb luck pre­vented me from hav­ing to face more than de­struc­tion of prop­erty or as­sault charges. But it wasn’t un­til my early 20s that I be­gan to ma­ture and take re­spon­si­bil­ity for my­self and my ac­tions, un­der­stand­ing what it took and meant to be a pro­duc­tive mem­ber of so­ci­ety.

Why? Be­cause chil­dren’s brains have not fully de­vel­oped. As a re­sult, they make de­ci­sions based upon risk, re­ly­ing more on the prim­i­tive parts of the brain that em­pha­size re­ward and emo­tion over con­se­quence and un­der­stand­ing. This is why we don’t al­low chil­dren to en­ter into con­tracts or vote, or en­list in the mil­i­tary — they are not old enough to han­dle the re­spon­si­bil­ity. It seems only right that the same logic ap­ply to ju­di­cial pun­ish­ments. If chil­dren who com­mit crimes are not given the op­por­tu­nity of a sec­ond chance, they may die in prison for acts made be­fore hav­ing de­vel­oped the cog­ni­tive and emo­tional skills needed to make in­formed and smart de­ci­sions and choices. This does not mean that child of­fend­ers should not serve time ap­pro­pri­ate to the sever­ity of their crimes. It means that in­di­vid­u­als who com­mit­ted se­ri­ous crimes as chil­dren and who re­ceive lengthy prison sen­tences, in­clud­ing life sen­tences, should be con­sid­ered for re­lease on pa­role later in life af­ter they have ma­tured into adult­hood. This ap­proach en­sures more ageap­pro­pri­ate accountability mea­sures for chil­dren, while con­tin­u­ing to pro­tect pub­lic safety.

Across the na­tion, there are thou­sands of in­di­vid­u­als serv­ing life or life-equiv­a­lent sen­tences for crimes they com­mit­ted as chil­dren. This means they will likely die in prison with­out a chance to prove to so­ci­ety they are wor­thy of a sec­ond chance. The U.S. Supreme Court has de­fined this pun­ish­ment as “cruel and un­usual” for all but the rarest cases in­volv­ing chil­dren, be­cause it is, in ef­fect, a death sen­tence for a child.

As of last month — thanks to Arkansas’ pas­sage of the Fair Sen­tenc­ing of a Mi­nor Act — 18 states and the District of Columbia have banned life-with­out-pa­role sen­tences for crimes com­mit­ted by peo­ple younger than age 18. The U.S. Supreme Court has also rec­og­nized that chil­dren are “con­sti­tu­tion­ally dif­fer­ent” from adults in a se­ries of rul­ings that have scaled back the use of ex­treme sen­tences on chil­dren. It also states that chil­dren — whose char­ac­ters are less fixed than adults — have a unique ca­pac­ity for change and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

My sec­ond chance took me to the Univer­sity of Wy­oming fol­lowed by law school, ser­vice in the Army and ul­ti­mately to a seat in the Wy­oming House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. When I an­nounced my can­di­dacy for the U.S. Se­nate, my for­mer pro­ba­tion of­fi­cer, J.B. Mosley, was in the crowd. He had al­ways be­lieved in my ca­pac­ity for redemp­tion — just as I now deeply be­lieve in the pos­si­bil­i­ties for other youth con­victed of se­ri­ous crimes.

We are all sin­ners, but sal­va­tion and redemp­tion is there for all of God’s chil­dren. For­give­ness, tol­er­ance, re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and restora­tion are at the core of our be­liefs and those of most ma­jor re­li­gions. They are also part of a con­ser­va­tive phi­los­o­phy of gov­ern­ing that puts faith in the in­di­vid­ual and be­lieves that every hu­man is worth more than the worst thing they have ever done. I en­cour­age other law­mak­ers in states across the coun­try — re­gard­less of po­lit­i­cal ide­ol­ogy — to con­sider fol­low­ing Arkansas’ ex­am­ple. Af­ter all, I am vivid liv­ing proof that a child who seems hope­less one day can trans­form and go on to change the world to­mor­row.

Alan Simp­son is a for­mer Repub­li­can U.S. sen­a­tor from Wy­oming.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY LI­NAS GARSYS

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