Last week, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law SB 294, or the Fair Sentencing of Minors Act, making Arkansas the 18th state to ban life without parole sentences for children. At first glance, this move may seem uncharacteristic for a historically conservative state known for harsh sentencing policies. But a closer look reveals a commitment to the fundamental belief that giving children who have done wrong a second chance is not only a legal imperative, but a moral obligation.
In a series of three cases decided in the last seven years, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that imposing sentences of life without parole upon children is unconstitutional in the vast majority of cases. Citing adolescent brain research and behavioral development studies, the court concluded that children are "constitutionally different" from adults and subjecting them to the country's harshest penalties constitutes cruel and unusual punishment – a violation of the Eighth Amendment. These landmark rulings are rooted in the common, scientific and legal understanding that children are not simply little adults. Their brains – not just their bodies – are not fully formed and they are less able to assess risks and understand the consequences of their actions. Because their brains are still developing, however, they also have a unique capacity to grow and change.
Linda White knows this from personal experience. Her daughter was killed by two children, one of whom she later met while he was in prison. During her testimony in support of the Fair Sentencing of Minors Act, White spoke of the man who killed her daughter more than three decades ago, saying he is not the same person he was back then. She feels strongly he needed to be held accountable for the harm he caused – andhave a meaningful second chance later in life.
Many states agree. In just five years, the number of states that ban these death-in-prison sentences for children has nearly quadrupled, with traditionally conservative states such as Utah, South Dakota, Wyoming and West Virginia leading the way. In 2011, it was legal to sentence children to life without parole in all but five states. Today, 18 states and the District of Columbia ban the practice.
These changes mark a significant shift away from the draconian sentencing policies implemented in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which came about largely in response to rhetoric about the flawed and racially charged "juvenile superpredator" theory. As this theory gained visibility, many states made it easier to try children as adults at far younger ages, exposing them to adult penalties that were also becoming more severe. The theory has since been disproven and renounced by its originators, but we are left with "tough on crime" policies that fail to account for the unique characteristics of children, and a narrative about youth – particularly teens of color – that is baseless and dehumanizing, yet still prevalent in the media today.
Consider the transformation of Xavier McElrath-Bey, a national advocate and senior adviser at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which one of us heads. After experiencing severe poverty and neglect as a youth, McElrath-Bey sought companionship and protection in a gang. That led to his involvement in a first-degree murder and the tragic loss of another youth's life, for which he received a sentence of 25 years in prison when he was just 13-years old. During his time in prison, McElrath-Bey reflected on his past, learned from his mistakes and earned a college degree. Most of all, he grew up. McElrath-Bey dedicated his life to the memory of the victim in his case. Today, he has a family and is working for change in his hometown of Chicago and throughout the country.
The recent groundswell of juvenile sentencing policy reforms has taken hold in traditionally red states, with conservative policymakers leading the charge. Meanwhile, traditionally blue states, including Oregon, Maryland, California and McElrath-Bey's home state of Illinois, lag behind. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle would be wise to follow the trend moving away from sentencing children to die in prison – which is a violation of international human rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – to policies that provide children who commit serious crimes with meaningful opportunities for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. Second chances and redemption are, after all, fundamental ideals for Americans – liberals and conservatives alike.