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Locked Up for Life

In his column today, Nicholas Kristof argues that the United States wastes massive amounts of money on its prison system. Why? Because we unnecessarily imprison some nonviolent offenders, namely drug users and dealers. The result, Kristof says, is that the government is investing vast sums in keeping people who aren't necessarily dangerous under lock and key--while our education and health care systems suffer from underfunding. "California spends $216,000 annually on each inmate in the juvenile justice system," he writes. "In contrast, it spends only $8,000 on each child attending the troubled Oakland public school system, according to the Urban Strategies Council."

In California, however, the problem of juvenile incarceration runs deeper still: The Golden State can sentence minors to life without parole. That means that some children put behind bars have zero chance at rehabilitation. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, more than 250 California inmates are in prison for life for crimes they committed before turning 18. "The rest of the civilized world recognizes the folly of condemning a juvenile to a life behind bars. The United States stands alone in issuing no-parole life sentences to minors," the Chronicle said in June, citing human rights reports.

The newspaper also pointed out that, in a state with such drastic budget problems, it would be wise to reassess this hard-line sentencing that brings with it the inevitable costs of keeping youths in prison until they die. Just how much could California save? Citing experts at Tulane and Berkeley, the advocacy project Fair Sentencing for Youth reports that, since 1990, California has spent between $66-83 million to incarcerate minors sentenced to life without parole. "Each new youth offender sentenced to life without parole will cost the state another 2 million to 2.5 million dollars," it adds.

In other words, juvenile sentencing is an ethical and financial dilemma. And, to address it, State Senator Leland Yee has introduced legislation that would permit the courts to review life-without-parole cases involving minors, 25 years after they have been imprisoned. The legislation wouldn't mandate parole or even require automatic case review; rather, inmates would have to meet certain rehabilitation criteria to qualify for new sentencing hearings.

Driving Yee, who has a Ph.D. in child psychology, and other activists in favor of reform are inmates who were locked up as minors for killing their abusers or pimps, and others who were convicted of murder for being at the scene of a crime, even if they didn't pull a trigger. (See here for three inmates' stories, and here for still more.) The state senate has passed Yee's bill by an eight-vote margin, but, in late June, it was shot down by the State Assembly's Public Safety Committee in a 4-3 vote. Yee has vowed to introduce the measure again, and California would be wise to adopt it.

But California isn't alone: Texas, Florida, and a handful of other states also keep children behind bars for life--and they should be urged to enact sentencing reform. Because, as the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative wrote in 2007, "The denial of all hope to a child whose brain--much less his character or personality--is not yet developed cannot be reconciled with society's commitment to help, guide, and nurture our children."