Legal News
Fewer Young Criminals May Face Life-Without-Parole Sentences
Psychiatric News
Volume 44 Number 20 page 16-16

Texas joined six other states this year in banning life sentences without the possibility of parole for young offenders.

The new Texas law, which went into effect September 1, eliminated the penalty with little fanfare in the last legislative session, according to media accounts. The measure (SB 839), sponsored by state Sen. Juan" Chuy" Hinojosa, set the maximum sentence that any juvenile (including those as young as 14) certified to stand trial as an adult for capital murder could receive as a life sentence with eligibility for parole after 40 years.

The legislation reverses a 2005 law that allowed life sentences without parole, under which four juveniles were incarcerated, according to Human Rights Watch. The new law will not retroactively affect those already incarcerated, although Hinojosa said he may offer a measure next year to change existing sentences.

Critics of lifetime incarceration for juveniles have long called for banning the practice because minors often act on impulse, without the same level of emotional control of which adults are capable.

A person's brain is not fully developed until he or she is an adult, said Debra Kowalski, M.D., chair of the Children and Adolescents Committee of the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians, in an interview with Psychiatric News.

A growing body of research on adolescent brain development has found that teens do not have the abilities of adults to make sound decisions, control their impulses, resist group pressures, or weigh the long-term consequences of their actions.

The new law "gives [offenders] an opportunity to make these changes and develop a better life," Kowalski said.

Human Rights Watch has found that the numbers of youths receiving such sentences was small until 1982, when the number began to rise until it peaked at 152 in 1996. Although the number of new sentences has declined since 1996, at least 2,574 people are serving such sentences for crimes committed before they were 18 years old.

That research has led Congress to consider action on the issue. The Juvenile Justice Accountability and Improvement Act of 2009 (HR 2289) would require states and the federal government to offer youth offenders meaningful opportunities for parole after serving 15 years of a life sentence.

Also the Supreme Court may weigh in on the matter. It agreed on May 4 to decide whether a life sentence without parole for juveniles who have committed crimes unrelated to murder violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The case will be heard in the court's next term, which begins this month (Psychiatric News, June 19).

The Juvenile Justice Accountability and Improvement Act can be accessed at<http://thomas.loc.gov> by searching on the bill number, HR 2289.

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