Saturday, April 5, 2008

State metes living death penalties to children


If children are the future, then why is Florida locking up adolescent offenders in adult prisons and throwing away the key?

Florida has 713 child inmates who have received adult sentences of 10 years or more for crimes committed before their 17th birthdays. The breakdown of the 713 childhood inmates based on age at the time of the offense is four 12-year-olds; 10 13-year-olds; 60 14-year-olds; 179 15-year-olds; and 460 16-year-olds. Of those 713 children, 122 are serving life without the possibility of parole for crimes committed before their 17th birthdays. These 122 children have been sentenced to a living death penalty.

It is unlikely that every 15-year-old who has committed a crime, big or small, is doomed to become a career criminal. Every parent knows that kids make mistakes and do not always comprehend the consequences of their actions. The Children in Prison Rehabilitation Act is a bill that has been filed during this legislative session by clinical law professor Paolo Annino and a group of law students at the Florida State University College of Law, Children in Prison Project. The act recognizes what the scientific community -- and the rest of the world -- has known for some time: Children are different and children can be rehabilitated.

The act's goal is to provide adolescent offenders an opportunity to prove that they have been rehabilitated and to give those adolescent offenders, who have earned their rehabilitation, the possibility of parole. The act is a measured response to the fact that the United States is the leader in the incarceration of children. The United States has 2,225 adolescent offenders incarcerated and serving life without the possibility of parole. The United States is the only country in the world that continues to sentence children to life without the possibility of parole. We are alone in the world in this practice.

Children are different from adults in their capacity for rehabilitation. Scientific data in neuroscience show that a child's brain continues to mature and develop into the early 20s. The areas of the brain that govern impulse control, planning and thinking are not fully developed by the age of 18, the legal age of majority. This new data expose the fact that the brain is still growing and developing through adolescence.

The proposed act contains tough criteria that each adolescent offender must meet to qualify for parole. The adolescent offender must have been 16 or younger at the time of the offense; sentenced for more than 10 years, up to and including life without the possibility of parole; incarcerated for at least eight years; and must be able to prove rehabilitation. The Florida Parole Commission determines whether an adolescent offender has been rehabilitated by considering the child's involvement in the crime -- follower or leader; the child's mental or developmental disabilities; whether the child has been discipline free while in prison; and the GED program or other educational programs completed while incarcerated.

The focus of the act is rehabilitation for a specific population of adolescent offenders. The act's criteria go on to exclude any adolescent offender who, before the current offense, has been adjudicated as an adult for felony battery; aggravated battery; assault or battery of law enforcement officers, firefighters, EMS personnel or elderly people; possession of a weapon or firearm during commission of a felony; sexual battery; abuse, aggravated abuse or neglect of a child; and cruelty to animals. Adolescent offenders do not qualify if they have been deemed habitual felony offenders. This act provides a second chance for those few child inmates who have turned their lives around in prison.

The drafters of the Children in Prison Rehabilitation Act urge the Legislature to enact this proposed bill and to make it law. It is important that as elections draw near and politicians promise to be "tough on crime," we all remember that well placed mercy can change lives. Children are different. Children can be rehabilitated.

Castagliuolo is an intern at the Florida State University College of Law.

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