Life not a ‘quick fix’ for youths

Every month, I receive two or three letters from him. Sometimes the tone of the letters exhibit strength, and others, regrets. He lives his life behind bars at the Graterford Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania.My cousin,

Every month, I receive two or three letters from him. Sometimes the tone of the letters exhibit strength, and others, regrets. He lives his life behind bars at the Graterford Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania.My cousin, Antoine Saunders, was convicted of robbery and murder of a student who attended the University of Pennsylvania. A 17 year old at the time of conviction, he now serves a life sentence without parole.Many juveniles in Pennsylvania and other states are mandated to serve life sentences without parole. This particular law makes it difficult for youth offenders to be given an option to redeem themselves as citizens of humanity.A report from two non-governmental organizations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International USA, says 42 states permit youths of 17 years and younger to be sentenced to life in prison without parole.In the nation, 2,225 offenders who committed crimes as a youth are serving this sentence. Pennsylvania leads the nation with 332 youth offenders, while Louisiana has 317, Michigan has 306 and Florida has 273. These four states commemorate laws that allow a mandatory life sentence without parole for certain offenses and give no options to judges to decide on other possible sentences.Life without parole for juveniles paints a picture of instability, hopelessness and no room for liberation for these troubled teenagers. I’m not trying to justify the crimes they have committed, but no good can be done if we send 13- 14- or 15-year-olds to jail for life without a chance to renovate themselves for adulthood. The state, and even the nation as a whole, must help these troubled youths, who have not fully developed mentally, understand the crimes they have committed and rehabilitate them.Many of today’s youth deal with psychological disorders, unstable influences from dysfunctional homes, or have grown up too fast because of missing parents. These are factors to consider when teenagers commit crimes. I don’t believe life sentences for juveniles are the answers to every murder case that enters a courtroom.In an Associated Press article published last October, executive director of Amnesty International USA, William Schulz, said judges should have flexibility instead of having to enforce mandatory life-without-parole sentences.”Untie the hands of state and federal judges and prosecutors,” Schultz said. “Give them options other than turning the courts into assembly lines that mass produce mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children.”But not everyone agrees. In a recent Philadelphia Daily News article, Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham said: “I have very little sympathy for the Amnesty International position, when these little assassins come in with machine guns and submachine guns and kill people. Murder is murder. If I killed you, would you care whether I was 16 or 80? You’re still dead forever.”Both Schulz and Abraham have valid points. Yes, murder is murder. But sentencing a youth to a life behind bars doesn’t help the situation. Yes, the victim’s family deserves justice to be served and the offender must take responsibility for what he or she has done.Yet tough state laws need to be reformed and the mandatory life without parole for juveniles decision needs to be eliminated. Every case that involves a murder or another offense needs to be examined thoroughly and judges should be given a chance to decide on what sentence is best for the criminal. Both federal and state governments should create laws that enforce a minimum and maximum number of years that a youth offender should be incarcerated. After serving that time, the offender should be placed on a probationary period for a certain time so that he or she can continue rehabilitation and begin to rebuild their life as a citizen.Federal and state governments should consider creating separate facilities that house youth offenders instead of clumping them together with adult offenders. This would allow the youth offenders to get the attention they need from the proper personnel and therapists. During their sentence, youth offenders should be placed in rehabilitation programs that would deal with each individual’s psychological and emotional incapacities. This would determine the reasons for the actions of the offender and help determine the appropriate treatment for the individual.Readers are probably thinking that I’m showing sympathy for youth offenders because I have a family member in prison. That is not the reason. I don’t justify his wrongdoing or anyone else’s who commits a crime and I do believe criminals should serve time. But life in prison without a chance for parole for juveniles shouldn’t be a quick fix for justice.Mary L. Wilson can be reached at

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