California governor signs bill giving juvenile prisoners a second chance

This is a story so near and dear to my heart for a few reasons.


I worked in the juvenile and criminal justice systems in Chicago, as a social worker and a lawyer. I represented kids who killed. I represented some who were killed also but that isn’t what this is about. When I got to know my clients through my representation, I discovered that almost all of them were just kids, in bad situations with bad influences and lack of impulse control without a genuine recognition of the depths of the consequences which accompany criminal acts.

The scientific evidence is undisputed,

“With an immature prefrontal cortex, even if teens understand that something is dangerous, they may still go ahead and engage in the risky behavior”

Bottom line, kids are not adults. It is folly to treat them “as if” they are. Juvenile killers are not culpable in the same way that the criminal justice system anticipates and identifies criminal behavior.  Known to some by the legal Latin term, “mens rea” and more commonly as culpability, criminal behavior required not only the act but the evil heart. When juvenile gang members started committing more homicides in the 70s, a group of sociologists in Chicago predicted the coming of juvenile super-criminals in the 1980s. A young, teen-age criminal was being birthed into society who would act violently without conscience or reservation. It turns out that super-criminal never materialized but the criminal statutes were already in place in anticipation.

It is against the law to impose the death penalty on someone who does not understand the nature of the punishment. Thus we do not execute the insane, the retarded and the kids. But we are locking them up and throwing away the key. People change as they age. A kid will jump out the second story bedroom window to see how it feels. A young man will jump out of an airplane to see how it feels. A man in his thirties will ride his Harley fast in violation of the law and safety. A man in his forties generally thinks that jumping out of second floor windows is crazy. A fifty year old man does not see the point of paying to risk his life jumping out of airplanes. Hell no, no way. With age comes judgement.

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