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juvenile sentencing reform

In the United States, more than 2.2 million people are currently serving prison sentences. That is a staggering number of individuals who not only are unable to contribute to society, but for whom society must provide. It is widely accepted that some individuals deserve punishment and that others must be separated from the general population. But, the million-dollar question remains: how do we hand out sentences that are both just and effective for all parties involved? Sentences that go beyond punishment and allow individuals who served their sentences a chance at success upon release.

Previously, The Sentencing Reform Act (H.R. 3713) and The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SB 2123) were discussed here. Both of these bills offer promise, but neither has made much progress as the political process is painstaking and laborious. That is not to say positive change is not happening, reform can happen in a variety of ways.

Juvenile Sentencing Reform

In Miller v. Alabama, the United States Supreme Court ruled the Eighth Amendment prohibits individuals who were juveniles at the time of an offense from being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, unless the sentence considered the special circumstances of the juvenile. The Supreme Court relied heavily on science and reasoned that juvenile offenders’ brains were not fully developed, and as a result they were the most likely class of offenders to be reformed.

Recently, the Supreme Court made the ruling in Miller retroactive in Montgomery v. Louisiana. The Court held that individuals sentenced for an offense committed while juveniles would be given a chance to present evidence essentially rebutting a life without parole sentence. Though this ruling will undoubtedly effect thousands of individuals, many more will not feel its effect. But it does show a willingness of the Courts to rely upon our collective scientific knowledge to determine whether a sentence actually fits the crime and attending circumstances.

Drug Courts

There are other reforms that have been enacted at the local level aimed at providing real help to individuals in the criminal justice system. In Hennepin County, and many others across the country, drug courts are aimed at reducing recidivism by helping individuals dealing with addiction. Instead of having convicted individuals5 go through the standard incarceration or probation process, treatments plans are created and that individual is given assistance in a variety of ways, including locating better housing and employment. The individual must abide by certain rules as with any sentence, but the rules focus on what caused the crime, not just the crime itself. Similar courts have been created for individuals with mental health issues. (See Position Statement 53: Mental Health Courts, Mental Health America, http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/positions/mental-health-courts ). As well as for service members. (See the Colorado 4th District Attorney’s Office Veterans Court here). These courts are using tailored sentences to reduce the rate of crime, something that benefits all of society.

Reform must occur to create a criminal justice system that is effective and just. The good news is that reform can happen on many levels, Congress, State and Federal Courts, as well as local programs can implement smarter sentences. The bad news is that change can be a slow process. It is imperative that sentencing continues to evolve, committing a crime should not handicap someone for the rest of his or her life.

Understanding how to advocate for a sentence can be the difference between success and failure. If you or someone you know is facing prosecution it is important to talk to a criminal defense and juvenile lawyer protect your rights at every stage. Contact the Ambrose Law Firm, PLLC at 651-800-4842 or email ambroselegal@icloud.com for a free consultation.

Attorney Nathan Downing received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Denver. In law school, he was a member of the Law Review. Recently, he returned home to Minnesota to continue his legal career. St. Paul criminal defense attorney; criminal attorney St. Paul MN; and criminal defense attorney St. Paul MN.

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