Guest Column: Youth Justice Awareness Month: Transforming Awareness into Action
By Jody Kent Lavy, Executive Director of the Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth
October is Youth Justice Awareness Month — as proclaimed by President Obama — and we are celebrating and honoring all of the hard work of community leaders, advocates, coalition builders, legislative champions, judicial officials, defenders, and directly impacted individuals who seek to ensure that our country holds children accountable in age-appropriate ways that account for their experiences with trauma and their capacity to grow and change.
Our partners at the Campaign for Youth Justice started Youth Justice Awareness Month in 2008 to draw attention to the need to end the prosecution of youth in the adult criminal justice system. As awareness has grown, so have opportunities to create change, so the founders have decided to focus this year and in the future on transforming awareness into action. We are thrilled to join them in their efforts.
Despite the ongoing efforts of advocates, litigators and others throughout the county, children are still prosecuted as adults, and often are sentenced to life without parole and other extreme punishments. When we sentence children to die in prison, we ignore what adolescent brain science tells us and how that has impacted several recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court: Children are different from adults, both physically and developmentally. Children are less able to think through the long-term consequences of their actions, control their impulses or avoid pressure from peers or adults. Because they are still developing, they also possess a unique capacity to grow and change. In fact, we know that most children grow out of illegal behaviors by the time they reach their late 20s.
Thankfully, we are moving toward a justice system that less punitive in its dealings with children. In the last decade, the U.S. Supreme Court has significantly scaled back the use of the most extreme sentences for children, and has required opportunities for review for everyone sentenced as a child to a mandatory life-without-parole sentence. The Court also has said that these death-in-prison sentences are appropriate only when it can be proven that a child is irredeemable.
In addition, 17 states now ban these sentences for children. This includes both traditionally conservative states such as West Virginia and Nevada as well as traditionally liberal states such as Hawaii and Massachusetts.
Yet, our work is not done. We must ensure that all of these court and policy decisions are implemented in meaningful ways to provide everyone serving one of these sentences with a reasonable opportunity for release.
Throughout October, we will share commentaries of directly impacted individuals. We hope that you will be moved and inspired by their testimonies.
Thank you for your partnership as we work to ensure that no child is ever condemned to die in prison and all children are given a second chance.