Victor exchanged words with a man in a club. Juan got into an argument with his ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend. Alex was angry his team lost a ball game. Robert was threatened during a dice game. Each boy was 16 or 17 years old, each of them shot and killed someone, and each of them is now serving a sentence between 30 and 50 years to life in New York State prison.
They are not alone. There are 631 people serving life sentences in New York for crimes committed when they were 17 or younger.
The “tough on crime” decades of the 1970s and 80s yielded racist tropes like “wolfpack” and “superpredator” that further paved the way toward mass incarceration, particularly targeting black and brown teenagers.
New York’s Raise the Age legislation, which recently increased the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18, is the proverbial drop in the bucket. The belated recognition of the criminal law’s devastating and inappropriate application to young people demands further action.
Most urgently, the 631 people serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were 17 or younger must be afforded the opportunity to be resentenced.
To be clear, most of the 631 are not innocent, nor do they claim to be. Most committed terrible crimes. People were killed and families were destroyed. Yet a growing body of research in adolescent brain development demonstrates that young people are less culpable and more amenable to reform than adults.
Dr. Laurence Steinberg, an internationally recognized leader in adolescence, emphasizes that areas that impact criminal culpability, including impulsiveness, risk-aversion and resistance to peer pressure, continue to develop well into our mid-20s.
The Supreme Court has come to recognize what Justice Elena Kagan refers to as “the mitigating qualities of youth.” In Roper vs. Simmons, relying on the burgeoning scientific awareness regarding adolescent brain development, particularly that youth have an “underdeveloped sense of responsibility” and greater capacity for rehabilitation, the Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence a person to death for a crime committed when they were less than 18.
Subsequently, in Miller vs. Alabama, the court held that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole for youth 17 or younger were unconstitutional, and therefore youthful offenders must be given meaningful opportunities to earn their release based on demonstrated maturation and growth.
A growing number of states have passed laws that give young offenders an opportunity to seek release after having served a proscribed number of years. A House bill introduced by Bruce Westerman of Arkansas, a Republican, provides for an opportunity to petition a judge to review a sentence after 20 years.
Given that the U.S. Sentencing Commission considers a 39-year sentence as the equivalent of life, some new laws extend beyond life without parole sentences and also apply to lengthy prison terms.
To fully redress mass incarceration and the hyper-punishment of youth, we must further reconsider the relationship between age, culpability and capacity for transformation. Even when the Court drew a bright line at 18, it acknowledged that “The qualities that distinguish juveniles from adults do not disappear when an individual turns 18.” Neuroscience now teaches that brain development continues into the mid-20s.
New York’s Raise the Age law should herald the start of an enlightened, corrective approach to youth and sentencing, and spur legislation that gives people opportunities to seek parole or resentencing that provides for years of meaningful life outside prison walls.
Victor, Juan, Alex and Robert have all served decades. They are in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Some have prospered earning GEDs, college credits and select positions in the prison. Others have struggled with depression, hopelessness and suicide attempts. Each of them should be afforded a meaningful opportunity for release.