07/06/2012 05:58 pm ET | Updated Sep 05, 2012

Throwing a Lifeline to Youthful Offenders

The Supreme Court took an important step in the right direction when it barred mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder. And the reasoning behind the court's majority opinion underscores the need for this nation to go even further to rescue young people ensnared by the criminal justice system.

To anyone who's lived to tell about their years as a teenager -- or survived being the parent of one -- the court's rationale should be beyond question.

"Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features -- among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences," Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, said.

The court's decision stands on an ever-growing mountain of incontrovertible scientific research confirming that the brain continues to develop and change throughout adolescence, and that those parts of the brain governing impulse control, judgment and other characteristics tied to moral culpability don't mature until the early 20s. This presents a powerful argument for states to consider raising the age of criminal responsibility, and to expand already existing legal provisions that take the evolving adolescent brain into account.

While the age of criminal responsibility is 18-years-old in most states -- the Supreme Court decision bars mandatory life terms for juveniles who committed murders before 18 -- it is 17 in others. In North Carolina and New York, courts treat 16-year-olds as adults.

Lamar Sanchez was "18 years and 69 days," as he puts it, when he turned a gun on his girlfriend and killed her in October of 1995. She had pleaded with him to kill her father; he'd finally agreed to ask a friend to do it. Sanchez said he brought the friend to his girlfriend's house, but that the plot went awry. The friend unexpectedly told Sanchez to shoot his girlfriend; he pulled the trigger and killed her. The friend then took the gun to another room and killed the girl's mother and brother; the father was at work. The two took money from the house and escaped. Two days later, Sanchez flagged down a police detective's car. He'd heard that the police were looking for him.

Now 34, Sanchez has spent the last 16 years behind bars. He is serving a sentence of life without parole and will die in prison.

"This was my first offense, but do I say it was a mistake? No," Sanchez said from the yard of the New York State prison where he is confined. "It was a bad decision. It was wrong. But back then, it was like I didn't have a real understanding of my behavior, of what I was doing. It wasn't real. Am I still that person? No. There are people who would say that I would never change. But I've learned a lot of lessons about being mature since then. I was a kid. As a man, I've changed."

Sanchez's crime was horrible by any measure. And loved ones of the murdered family will no doubt endure their own life sentence, one of haunting grief and misery. But given scientific findings and acknowledgements in past court rulings -- including that juveniles are more susceptible to peer pressure, and often cannot fully understand the moral reprehensibility of their actions -- should not young people who've committed crimes, even violent ones, be met with a response that rehabilitates rather than eternally punishes? For growing numbers in the judicial system, the answer is yes.

A smart argument for this trend to continue and expand is made by Patricia Warth, co-director of Justice Strategies at the Center for Community Alternatives, and Kevin D. O'Connell, a former president of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. In a piece on New York's age of criminal responsibility in "Atticus," the association's quarterly publication, they write: "Responding to teenage crime in a system that focuses on rehabilitation and reintegration holds out the most promise for addressing teenage crime because it recognizes not only teenagers' lessened culpability, but also their immense capacity for positive change. This is no less true for a teenager who engages in violent behavior. There is no reason to believe -- and no research to support the notion -- that a teenager who engages in violent conduct is somehow more culpable or less able to change than other teenagers. It can be reasonably argued that because of the serious nature of their offenses, it is even more important that in cases involving violent teenage conduct, the justice system adopts an approach that is designed to promote change and life-long law-abiding and positive conduct."

Warth and O'Connell recommend that a defendant's age, not the nature of the crime, should generally dictate whether he is prosecuted as a juvenile or an adult. And they argue for the expanded use of Youthful Offender adjudication, a special provision for young people who commit crimes that is available in one form or another in many states. In New York, the provision may be considered for young people who, at the time of the alleged crime, were at least 16-years-old but not yet 19. Among other recommendations, Warth and O'Connell call for the age to be raised to include those as old as 20 or 21, arguing that doing so would be consistent with research about the brain's development.

Receiving Youthful Offender adjudication represents a lifeline. Although a young person can still be sentenced to prison, the conviction is vacated and the records are sealed. They get a fresh start, a second chance and are not branded as criminals for the rest of their lives.

"I ask myself if I deserve a second chance," Lamar Sanchez said. "The victims won't get one; they're dead. But I'm not that 18-year-old kid making poor decisions, with a mother on drugs and defending myself on the streets. If the people who put me here think I can't change, that I'm always going to be that 18-year-old who made bad decisions, they should just give me the death penalty and put an end to my life. I won't fight it."

Sheila R. Rule spent more than 30 years as a journalist at The New York Times. After retiring, she co-founded the Think Outside the Cell Foundation, which works to end the stigma of incarceration and help the incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated and their families create their own opportunities.