To the editor:
After the federal and state supreme courts recently rejected mandatory life sentences for juveniles, some families of murder victims responded by pushing our legislators to reinstate harsh mandatory sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. Your paper most recently reported on this effort on May 15 (“Victims’ families urge minimum sentences for juvenile killers”). No one interviewed by your paper was willing to publicly resist these efforts. I am sympathetic to the families and to the legislators: It is hard to consider the rights of killers at any time, especially in the face of grief. But many of these legislative efforts are wrong and should be resisted.
Mandatory minimum sentencing is only appropriate for two reasons: The main reason is to deter people who want to avoid those sentences; the other is to remedy a consistent pattern of inadequate sentencing. But, juveniles are unlikely to be aware of or deterred by any mandatory sentencing; and there is no record of consistent failure of the judiciary here, in spite of the fact that when specific sentences do prove inadequate, those are the ones we hear about. Judges and parole boards are far better evaluators of an individual’s prospects for rehabilitation than an arbitrary law. And our supreme courts agree that juveniles are entitled to some consideration for rehabilitation. I agree with the courts, and I would like to see our legislators support the courts, not work to undermine them. Issuing new sentencing guidance would be helpful here. Mandating severe judgments is not.
A final note: Your story on May 15 lists the seven most egregious juvenile murderers in the system, but it does not touch on any of the more complex stories, not uncommon, which prompted the state and federal courts to rule as they did.