Former President George W. Bush famously said, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” Few children grow up to be president, but many kids violate the law. While minor incidents like underage drinking are much more common, a small number of youths commit serious crimes landing them in adult prison. Even in such cases, precisely because kids are so amenable to change, the Land of Enchantment must also be the Land of Second Chances.
One step in that direction would be abolishing life without parole as a sentencing option for New Mexicans who are 18 or younger, a proposal that could be considered if the governor adds it to the agenda for the upcoming legislative session. Under this proposal, youths sentenced for the most serious crimes would also receive a parole hearing after 15 years behind bars.
A commitment to the possibility of redemption unites every religious tradition, as well as nonbelievers, and spans the political spectrum. It is not just liberals but conservatives like Newt Gingrich who have called for ending juvenile life without parole. New Mexico’s veritably conservative neighbor Texas abolished juvenile life without parole back in 2009. More recently, in January 2021, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed bipartisan legislation replacing juvenile life without parole with a second-look review process that begins after 18 years of incarceration.
Why is there so much support for change? First, not even a fortuneteller has a crystal ball that illuminates who a 15-year-old will be by the time they are 30. This “second-look” legislation creates the opportunity for the parole board to determine whether a person who was sentenced as a child has invested in rehabilitation, poses no threat to public safety and is prepared to make positive contributions to society.
Most importantly, the broadly shared and instinctive appeal of second chances is backed by solid reasoning and evidence. Research on adolescent brain development indicates children are more susceptible to peer pressure than adults, are more deeply affected by trauma, are less capable of appreciating the consequences of their conduct and more likely to make decisions based on passion or momentary excitement.
However, because these deficits are developmental, children also have vast potential for rehabilitation and positive transformation. The data bears this out. Although no policy can guarantee that someone released from prison will refrain from crime any more than those who were never incarcerated will offend, a study of juvenile lifers released in Pennsylvania found a mere 1% recidivism rate.
Indeed, the Supreme Court has held that fundamental differences between children and adults must be taken into account when sentencing a child who has caused harm.
This proposal does not guarantee release to anyone. It merely creates an opportunity for parole review. Not every candidate will be able to demonstrate that they have been rehabilitated and deserve a second chance. But a second look provides a powerful incentive for good behavior and for participation in rehabilitative programming, making prisons and the communities people return to safer. Also, some of the savings from unnecessary incarceration can be reallocated to other public safety initiatives.
In a nation roiled by political polarization, evidence-based criminal justice reform remains one of the few true areas of bipartisanship. That is because it appeals to our shared values and delivers results. New Mexico leaders should bring the state in alignment with the growing national consensus that recognizes everyone has the potential to overcome their worst acts as a child.
Marc Levin, Esq., is founding director of the Right on Crime initiative. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter at @marcalevin.