Prosecutors Should Support Juvenile Justice Reform Legislation

As a former prosecutor, I know well the strong sense of justice that motivates district attorneys to do their jobs day after day. Confronted as they are with some of the worst actions humans can commit, even murder, they seek to uphold the rights of victims and ensure public safety, both noble goals, by punishing the offenders. The American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Standards for prosecutors remind us, however, that justice, not merely convictions, must be the prosecutor's ultimate goal. The Standards go on to state,

The prosecutor is not merely a case-processor but also a problem-solver responsible for considering broad goals of the criminal justice system. The prosecutor should seek to reform and improve the administration of criminal justice, and when inadequacies or injustices in the substantive or procedural law come to the prosecutor's attention, the prosecutor should stimulate and support efforts for remedial action.

For a prosecutor with a heavy caseload who already works long hours, it is asking a lot to expect her to keep a critical eye on the workings of the criminal justice system, to never accept the status quo, and to seek to improve the system whenever an inadequacy is perceived. It is far easier to think of justice simply in terms of convictions and long prison sentences. That is how I used to do the job. For a crime as heinous as murder, justice required the offender, regardless of age, to spend the rest of his or her life in prison.

Justice, however, is a difficult concept to pin down, and our understanding of what justice requires is always evolving. What we used to accept as just, such as trial by ordeal, we now regard as inhumane. We are currently witnessing a dramatic shift in how we think about justice with respect to children who commit violent crimes. Recent studies have confirmed what common sense has always taught us: children are different from adults. Relying on scientific data demonstrating that children, even children who are sixteen and seventeen years old, are not yet physiologically and psychologically formed, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that life-without-the-possibility-of-parole may not be a mandatory sentence for a child offender. Following the Court's lead, many states this legislative session, including Arkansas, are contemplating changes to their laws to provide for opportunities for release for people who received long prison sentences while they were children. Some states, such as Texas, Kansas, Kentucky and West Virginia have already eliminated life without parole sentences for children.

In some instances, prosecutors are speaking out against these legislative changes, presumably because they believe the new laws would conflict with their concept of justice. They contend that permitting early release for children who have committed awful crimes such as murder will do a disservice to public safety and would be unfair to the victims and their families. While a commitment to justice is something all of us should share, justice is a concept bigger than mere retribution, and it entails more than the imposition of harsh penalties. As a former prosecutor, I want to say that justice does not require that we choose between public safety and concern for victims on one hand and allowing for the rehabilitation of child offenders on the other. Instead, justice requires that we strive for all these goals.

True justice is never a zero-sum game. All of us, including prosecutors, should be concerned with both healing of victims and their families, protection of our communities, and reforming children who have acted out violently, many of whom have themselves suffered violence. We must see past the false dichotomy that would lead us to think that we must choose between concern for victims, child offenders, or the public. When people lose a loved one and communities feel threatened by violence, justice most certainly requires accountability and consequences. But in doling out consequences, we must be prudent. We must not be content to simply warehouse and forget about our children who commit crimes. Instead, we must invest in rehabilitative programs that bring about lasting change because we know children have great potential to improve and move beyond the worst moment of their young lives. To be faithful to what is best about our society, we, even our prosecutors, should be willing to acknowledge that none of our children is beyond the hope of redemption. Children can and do change. We are already seeing the good fruit of prisoners who were sentenced as children being released, getting jobs, and reaching out to at-risk young people in their communities to teach them to avoid repeating their mistakes.

As concerned as our prosecutors must be with the needs for accountability and public safety, they must pursue those ends with the understanding that children have the capacity to grow and develop into something much greater and more profound than their worst mistake. No child should be sentenced to die in prison because no child is beyond hope. No child is disposable. To say these things is neither to ignore the rights of victims and their families nor to diminish public safety. We as a society must leave room for our children to change for the better. And when we are confident of change, when we are assured that rehabilitation has taken place, when there has been accountability and remorse and reformation, we must be willing to give a second chance. To do otherwise would be fiscally and morally irresponsible.

To work on behalf of victims, to strive for public safety, and to allow for the redemption of children who have committed violent crimes are not mutually exclusive or antagonistic to each other. Prosecutors, please take note. A legislative change allowing for a second chance to be given to a child is not a betrayal of justice. Given what we know about the capacity of children to make positive changes, such a legislative change is a requirement of justice. As administrators of justice who are charged with improving the system, prosecutors should support, not oppose, legislative changes that hold children accountable in more age-appropriate ways and recognize their capacity for redemption.