President Barack Obama’s call for criminal justice reform, especially for young offenders, is a historic breakthrough.
“We’ve got to make sure the juvenile justice system remembers that kids are different,” the president said in his recent address to the NAACP.
Obama’s statement brings increased visibility to what adolescent development research has long documented: Children have less ability than adults to control their impulses, think through the long-term consequences of their behaviors, and avoid pressure from peers and adults. Significantly, they also have a greater capacity for rehabilitation. The U.S. Supreme Court, drawing in part on this science, has ruled that children are “constitutionally different” from adults and, in three rulings during the past decade, has scaled back the harshest penalties that can be imposed upon them.
During his Oklahoma visit to a federal prison, the first ever by a sitting president, Obama spoke of a severely broken system that disproportionately impacts young men of color and has been costly to families, communities and taxpayers. Black teens are sentenced to life without parole at a per capita rate 10 times that of white youth.
Sadly, Obama has called for reform only for those who have committed drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes, while insisting on harsh punishments for others. We know, however, that youth who have been exposed to violence can overcome their own violent behaviors if we take a more constructive approach than long prison terms.
Only in the United States is it still possible for children to be sent to prison without hope of ever earning their release. That is why states and the federal government should ban life without parole, the most extreme punishment available to children in the United States. And, as Obama said, prosecutors should use their discretion to seek the most appropriate punishments, taking into account a defendant’s age and a child’s unique ability to change.
The president’s call comes amid growing political momentum to end life-without-parole sentences for children. This momentum has carried over into state legislatures. Fourteen states have eliminated these sentences. Several other states do not use the sentence or have significantly restricted its use.
A growing and politically diverse coalition has also called for an end to such punishment. Policymakers and opinion leaders ranging from former President Jimmy Carter to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and conservative commentator George Will have spoken out in favor of a ban. More than 100 national and international organizations have done the same, and entities such as the American Bar Association, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the American Correctional Association have issued statements calling for children to be held accountable in age-appropriate ways that focus on their capacity for rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
At the NAACP, the president called America “a nation of second chances.” He added, “Any system that allows us to turn a blind eye to hopelessness and despair, that’s not a justice system, it is an injustice system.”
Hope is the greatest thing we can provide to children. State legislatures and Congress have the power to move us toward that hope by banning life-without-parole sentences for children.