2016 Bills

HB 405: A Potential Second Chance for Juvenile Offenders

This bill passed the House 64-3 and passed the Senate unanimously.

Libertas Institute supports this bill.

Adult brains function differently than those of children; the latter group processes information through a portion of the brain that performs less rational analysis on the information being processed. As a result, children are more prone to acting without weighing the associated and obvious risks that may accompany their action.

This premise lies at the foundation of House Bill 405, sponsored by Representative Lowry Snow, which would prohibit life without parole sentences for youth offenders who plead guilty to, or are convicted of, a capital felony.

At present, 16 states ban life without parole for children. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that for minors, these sentences are a cruel and unusual punishment banned by the U.S. Constitution. And while few minors in Utah have been given life sentences without the possibility of parole, its elimination is still an important policy decision the legislature should support.

As a fundamental principle, incarceration should be rehabilitative—and not merely punitive. Imprisoning an individual for a crime committed should not merely occur to remove that threat from society, but also to help that individual become a new person and gain an opportunity to re-enter society at a later date, in all but the most heinous of cases.

One might argue that capital felonies are exactly those cases that merit life without parole, to “lock ’em up and throw away the key,” as it were. And while we would agree in cases of adults who have the mental acuity sufficient to understand right from wrong, this logic falls apart when one concedes the point that juvenile offenders cannot be held accountable to the same degree for crimes committed without the same rational understanding and analysis that an adult brain can perform.

HB405 does not prohibit life sentences for minors who have committed capital felonies. It only requires that parole be an option, such that at a future time in that person’s life, they can have an opportunity to demonstrate whether they have, as an adult, become an entirely different person worthy of a second chance at being a peaceful part of society.