A recent story by Dana Goldstein asks the important question of what constitutes justice for children who have been convicted of killing someone.
As a former juvenile court judge and a parent of three young adult children, I have seen firsthand what adolescent brain research has confirmed: children do not have the same capacity as adults to control their reactions, think through the long-term consequences of their behaviors or avoid pressure from peers and adults. We know that most children grow out of any propensity for illegality by the time they reach their late 20s. Accordingly, we do not need lengthy sentences such as life (with or without parole) to protect public safety. Drawing in part on this research, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled three times in the last decade that children are "constitutionally different" from adults and should not be subject to our country's harshest punishments. My home state of Massachusetts recently banned these sentences.
Nor is there any penological benefit to confining young offenders for decades. I have seen troubled youth mature and become responsible, productive adults. Locking them up at significant public expense when they could become contributing members of society is entirely counterproductive.
The only goal such lengthy sentences can possibly serve — at extraordinary human and monetary cost — is that of retribution, punishment for punishment’s sake in the imagined hope that such retribution will address the pain and loss of the victims of crime. I firmly believe that most crime victims (or their survivors) are not in the end greatly healed by vengeance and the difference between a fifteen year sentence and a thirty year sentence is unlikely to make a difference.
When sentencing children, our goal should not be retribution. Rather, we should get in line with international consensus and focus on the children who commit these crimes and the protection of the public. What period of incarceration will convey to these young people the seriousness of their conduct and permit them to outgrow the impulsiveness and the adverse childhood experiences that led them to violence?