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Can we rethink sentences for juvenile offenders?

Juveniles are not adults but, under some circumstances, can be punished like adults for certain crimes. Juvenile courts in Kansas adjudicate children from age 10 to 17. A young offender may remain in juvenile custody up to age 23.

Now imagine the environment for a juvenile offender tried and convicted as an adult. Some young people accused of murder charges and other violent offenses are bumped up to a full-blown criminal trial. The treatment these children have received can include the possibility of spending their entire adult lives in prison with no chance of parole.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2012 imposing mandatory life-long sentences upon juveniles was cruel. Justices felt juveniles don't have the ability to think about the long-term consequences. Many juvenile crimes are committed under the influence of adults, who take advantage of the younger person's immaturity.

Teens with automatic jury trials and harsh adult punishments came into being about two decades ago, when some prosecutors warned lawmakers to fear a huge teen crime wave. The protections recommended meant teens forced into criminal courts, penalty enhancements added for offenses involving firearms or gangs and mandatory minimum sentences, no matter how young the defendant or how long the sentence.

The prosecutors' predictions fizzled. Violent crime levels among young people reversed, dropping to levels never before recorded. The percentage of very serious youth crimes continued to remain low.

Advocates of juvenile legal reform believe judges should have a greater hand in deciding whether a young person's offense should move to criminal court. They suggest mandatory enhancements and sentencing minimums be scrapped in favor of incentive-based incarceration with light at the end of the imprisonment tunnel.

Criminal defense attorneys monitor changes in juvenile laws and attitudes within the legal system. Defense lawyers can fight hard to make sure a teen isn't swallowed up by a system that is barely tolerable for adults.

Source: Huffington Post, "Time to Put Truth and Common Sense Back Into Sentencing of Youthful Offenders," Steve Drizin, June 01, 2015

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