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13 And Life

11.15.09

I didn’t even know it was happening in this country, but apparently 13-year-olds can be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

That means that at the age of 13, your life could effectively be over.  Over well before it really even started.  And not even for homicide.  There’s a kid behind bars without any chance of release for armed robbery.

I am not the only one who finds this to be completely unacceptable.  The Supreme Court is investigating whether or not these sentences are constitutional or if they are cruel and unusual forms of punishment.

I have touched on this subject numerous times, usually with regard to capital punishment, and I always find myself wrestling with just what we are trying to accomplish with incarceration.  It’s most certainly a form of punishment.  I would like to think that we could do a lot more in the way of rehabilitation, especially with the non-violent offenders.  There should definitely be a debt paid to society for crimes, and these debts should escalate according to the severity of the crime committed.  But, it’s so much more complex than that.

But here are some places to begin:

First, we shouldn’t have capital punishment. Ever.  For any offense.  I don’t care what you did, no one has the right, especially the government, to condemn you to death. It’s never been a proven deterrent for serious crimes, either, so it just comes down to barbaric punishment.  Just because we have come up with arguably more humane ways to end human life – arguable because it’s not a doctor providing the lethal concoction of drugs so it’s not exactly always quick and painless – doesn’t change the reality that our society is murdering the convicted.  Regardless of whether you use a noose, an electric chair, or a firing range, the point of the action is the same.  And it’s time we, as an advanced society, end this.

Second, no child entering puberty should be cast into a cell for the rest of his life. Again, I don’t care what the kid did.  There should always be a possibility for his redemption.  Since when did we just completely give up on our youth?  Especially children – yes, 13-year-olds are children – from disadvantaged families and neighborhoods.  What message does that send?  Not to say that some of the crimes these kids have committed are not egregious and horrific – raping an elderly woman isn’t something to be taken lightly.  At the same time, we have to look at our society and ask ourselves what is driving a child to do such a heinous crime?  I don’t believe that many – if any – people are born inherently evil; so, tossing the kid in a cell and locking him away forever surely isn’t solving a single thing.

Third, we need to focus on rehabilitation over punishment. Life without parole clearly isn’t working as a deterrent for these teenagers.  Just look at the inner-city Chicago schools for evidence of that; they are getting more and more violent every day.  We need to be attacking this problem from a different angle.  Instead of spending the money that it will cost to keep a 13-year-old in prison for the better part of 60 years, we should invest in our school systems, our impoverished neighborhoods, substance abuse programs, and anything else that could get to the root of the problem rather than just locking kids up and throwing away the keys.

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