Giving Young Lifers a Second Chance

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court_artThough juveniles are Constitutionally prohibited from receiving the death penalty, they are routinely given life sentences for serious offenses.  But unlike a death penalty case, the access that the juvenile offender has to the appellate process is much more limited.

Our country provides the utmost protections for an individual facing the death penalty but seems to look the other way when it comes to a life sentence.  The reasoning is basically that the death penalty is the most severe penalty you can impose on a person, thus deserving special protections.  But if giving the most severe penalty to an adult grants that adult the greatest protections, shouldn’t giving the most severe penalty to a juvenile also grant that juvenile the greatest protections?

It is unfortunate that a juvenile who currently receives a sentence on the verge of cruel and unusual is essentially locked away from judicial protections outside the same appeals process granted to cases as minor as traffic tickets.  So the big question is why are we not doing more for this group of people?

When we look at a person when they are 18 and when they are 30, we tend to see an entirely different person.  The person has grown, changed, adapted, become an adult.  We expect this of all people and appreciate their maturity and experience with higher paying jobs, managerial positions, and respect.  Yet our system does not give the opportunity for a grown matured and experienced person to be re-evaluated if they committed a grave crime as a child.

Though some people may argue that executive clemency solves the problem of re-evaluating young offenders, this protection is limited indeed and subject to political will, which is something that the judicial system has an interest in keeping out of the court system.  The judicial system works best when it is not subject to political will.  To say that we should entirely leave case reviews in the hands of politicians is to give them no protection at all.  In a State like Texas, there is virtually no chance that an offender is going to receive clemency.  Governors like Rick Perry or George Bush are simply incapable of uttering the word.

Additionally, juveniles are one of the most likely groups to be subject to coercion and admissions to crimes that they did not commit.  In a typical juvenile case, the juvenile is entirely unfamiliar with his rights and is often subject to the pressures of police coercion to a much greater degree than an adult.  Simply being in the presence of a police officer may cause a juvenile to admit to something he did not do.  This can be evidenced in numerous cases where juveniles have plead to murders, rapes, and other heinous crimes only to be shown to be innocent through later DNA evidence that verified the actual murderer or rapist.

There is also an argument that it would simply cost too much to re-open closed juvenile files.  This is an absurd argument.  Only a small percentage of juvenile offenders receive life sentences.  Reviewing these files would only cost the judicial system a small amount of time and money.  Alternatively, to ignore them guarantees that tax payers will be stuck with paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars to house each person in prison for life.  In Colorado, it costs over $30,000 a year to house someone in jail.  If the person is in jail for 70 years, that’s $2,100,000.  Additionally, our society bears the burden of wondering whether taking the person’s life was ultimately just.

It is my hope that the judicial system eventually adapts to help young offenders.  These individuals deserve to, at the very least, have their files glanced over by a competent attorney and a competent judge to see if there are mitigating circumstances that merit a change to the sentence.


The information in this post is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or as the creation of an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice, please contact an Attorney.

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Nathaniel has worked in criminal law on both sides of the aisle spending time working for the prosecution as well as the defense. Most recently Nathaniel has represented individuals in violent felonies and drug cases. Prior to this work, Nathaniel handled DWIs, Domestic Violence Cases, Property Crimes, and White Collar Crimes. On the prosecutorial side, Nathaniel has most notably worked in Bosnia helping to prosecute individuals who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Bosnian War from 1993-1995. In particular, Nathaniel helped in the prosecution of military leaders who arranged for the organized murders and rapes of innocent civilians in various towns in Bosnia. Nathaniel is a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, Northwestern University, and Phillips Exeter Academy. Google Profile: Nathaniel Baca