Nicole Beaudoin is a master’s candidate in the Professional Writing Program at UMass Dartmouth. Currently, she works with the University’s web team and teaches Business Communications as a TA. She has a passion for literature, writing and especially dogs.
Adolescence is a time in life for making mistakes and learning lessons to carry into adulthood. But for the thousands of juvenile offenders in our country’s prison system, adolescence is just part of their life sentence without parole. For many of these youths, one wrong decision has led them to live their entire lives behind bars for committing what officials call “adult crimes,” when in fact they do not even understand these crimes.
In the New York Times discussion forum “room for debate,” Mark Mauer, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project and the author of Race to Incarcerate, argues that sentencing children is inherently different than sentencing adults:
…children are different than adults. As the Supreme Court noted in its 2005 decision in Roper v. Simmons banning the death penalty for juveniles, children do not have fully matured levels of judgment or impulse control, and are more susceptible to peer pressure than adults.
Mauer says that children are “uniquely capable of change…No matter how serious a crime committed by a 13-year-old, there is no means of predicting what type of adult he or she will become in 10 or 20 years.”
While the crimes some juveniles have committed are very serious – murder, rape, home invasion – many offenders twice their age commit the same crimes and serve minimal sentences and receive parole. Why don’t youths receive the same chance for change?
Recently, the Supreme Court heard arguments for two cases (neither of which involves murder) that bring up an interesting question: is sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without parole is a violation of the Eight Amendment, which prevents cruel and unusual punishment?
Some say yes, and hope the Court holds views similar to Justice Kennedy’s stance in Roper v. Simmons. They ask for recognition of the injustice in judging a life not yet developed. But, I think the courts still must look further into this discussion. They must look at all crimes committed by juveniles, even murder.
Sara Kruzan was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for murdering her pimp at age 16. She is now 29. Before and during her tumultuous teens, Sara was a model student and avid writer. She also suffered from severe depression and abuse from her drug addicted mother. At age 11, she met a 31-year-old man, G.G., who befriended her and started grooming her for prostitution. For the next few years, she worked for G.G. while still attending school.
As she was sentenced, the judge told her she “lacked moral scruples.” Sara lacked the understanding of those words and of the severity of her actions. Throughout her sentence, Sara has educated herself on those words and others to build her character and learn from her mistakes. She is not the same girl that the judge sentenced all those years ago. Yet, she has no chance to show the courts her transformation. We can only see her through short heartfelt interview clips.
When I see Sara speak about her story with such honestly and integrity, I see an ethical, learned woman – not a heartless, immoral killer. If Sara has learned, others have as well. She changed her life through education and experience.
She and other juvenile offenders deserve a chance to change. Granted we need to look at their crimes but we must look more closely at the proper penalty they deserve. No one in their teens should be sentenced to a life of no possibilities.