Crime, punishment and children


By Frank Wessling

A crime committed with vicious violence is frightening. Almost all of us react with deep fear of the perpetrator and an instinctive desire to put him or her — usually him — away for good to ensure our safety.
But is instinct ever enough, especially when the perpetrator is a child?
Not if we act as rational beings, especially with Christian inspiration.
The Supreme Court opened the door last month to a more rational way of treating children convicted in deadly crimes. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad was much too timid in his response to the court’s move. He could have welcomed it as a turn toward reasonable justice for children and an opportunity to reexamine cases where justice appeared to be overwhelmed by vengeance and mandatory sentencing rules. Instead, he merely substituted his rigid one-size-fits-all rule for the one that originally sent some of our children to prison for “life.”
He allowed the sentences of some prisoners convicted of murder as children to be changed from life without possibility of parole to 60 years without parole. For someone convicted at the age of 17 this is a distinction without a difference and an insult to the spirit of the Supreme Court decision.
The U.S. Constitution, along with reasonable people everywhere, prohibits the use of “cruel and unusual” punishment by the state. To lock up a teenager and tell him he has no hope of ever being free, no matter how he behaves or changes as he matures, is certainly cruel by any measure. This is what mandatory sentencing rules have done. They are a result of laws passed by legislatures trying to prove they were tough on crime.
It was right for the court to prohibit such rules and invite states to reexamine the cases of people affected by them. In some cases there may be good reason to keep someone in prison for public safety or because no sign of remorse and changed character has been evident. But there will be cases where mitigating circumstances at the time of the crime strongly suggest a lack of clear judgment or absence of free choice. And there will be cases of children coming to healthy maturity in prison, aware of the awful things they have done, sorry for them, and ready to continue repentance in a life productive for society when allowed.
Reasonable people would want such case-by-case study.

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