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Sunday, July 29, 2012
Rasaan Turner: Give young offenders a chance to change
As a 17-year-old, I constantly make mistakes as I travel the confusing path to adulthood. Every day, like many young people, I am faced with decisions that can lead to either personal growth or childish nostalgia.
So I find it incredible that a Michigan law forced judges to sentence someone as young as 14 to life in prison, without parole. That means your life is over before it barely begins, without an opportunity for redemption or a second chance.
The U.S. Supreme Court has taken the right step by deciding that mandatory life sentences for juveniles who are convicted of murder are unconstitutional. But life without parole remains a sentencing option for judges. State legislators can take that ruling one step further by prohibiting judges from sentencing juveniles to mandatory life in prison.
Michigan prisons hold more than 350 juveniles, people who were sentenced to mandatory life sentences before they were old enough to vote, legally buy cigarettes, or even have an eBay account.
Worse, about half of those young people didn't actually kill anyone. They got caught up in an action that led to tragic consequences. That doesn't make them blameless, but it shouldn't close any opportunity for change or growth.
Young people are inexperienced, and the majority of us love learning. Teaching requires seasoned hands to share one of their most sacred gifts: their knowledge and experience. And as pupils, we can't help but be excited that someone is patient and kind enough to share their treasure.
Kanye West may not have become the icon he is today if Jay-Z hadn't taken a risk and taken him under his wing. Now they stand side-by-side as colleagues, musicians and friends, as they did during last week's BET Awards.
Fourteen-year-old Joshua Smith killed his mother, Tamiko Robinson, after she tried to stop his involvement in a gang. No doubt, he killed someone and deserves to be punished. But should 100% of the burden be laid on his shoulders? What about the gang he associated with, the environment he was raised in, the video games he played?
"The 'prime time' for emotional, physical, social and motor skill development in children is birth to 12 years of age," said Sean Brotherson, a family service specialist at North Dakota State University. "A parent's efforts to nurture and guide a child will assist in laying healthy foundations for social and emotional development."
Children need to be seen as developing human beings, not future menaces to society.
Rather than force young people to spend the rest of their lives in prison, a judge could sentence young offenders into the juvenile system, where they could get help to make the changes they need. Then, upon reaching adulthood, the judge could determine, based on the juvenile's progress, whether he or she needs additional time in the adult prison system.
Such an approach would save money, too. It costs about $35,000 to house a prisoner annually, or nearly $2 million for a juvenile lifer who would spend his entire life locked up. That's money society could better spend on recreation centers, libraries and other services for young people and reduce crime.
As a 17-year-old who is still a work in progress, I know even the most reckless and immature of us can grow beyond measure. Don't lock the leaders of tomorrow in jail and throw away the key, without first recognizing our potential to become more.
Rasaan Turner, 17, of Detroit is a high school apprentice at the Detroit Free Press.
**This information is being shared by Citizens for Prison Reform for purely informational purposes.
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