As America revisits its tough-on-crime policies from decades past, much of how to fix our criminal justice system is still up for debate. Most prominently, a bipartisan bill to rewrite the nation's sentencing laws is slogging through Congress and may well get stuck there.
But criminal justice reform advocates are celebrating a surprising amount of success in one area largely off the radar of the national debate: banning the practice of sentencing minors to life in prison without parole.
Twenty-one states ban entirely or in most cases the practice of sentencing minors to life without parole. Many of those bans have been instituted in the past decade. Lately, Republican-leaning states have been picking up the cause, an indication that the sentencing practice instituted in the 1990s is on its way out.
On Tuesday, Utah became the second state this year to ban such sentences, after South Dakota. And in the past few years, Wyoming, Nevada and West Virginia have instituted some version of the ban. Since a critical 2012 Supreme Court decision on this issue, the number of states that have banned the practice has more than tripled, said Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
The debate, like many others in criminal justice reform, is hard to separate from race; advocates say the minors who have been sentenced to life without parole are 10 times as likely to be black than white.
"There's clearly been a shift and a recognition that young people need to be held accountable in more age-appropriate ways, and we've really gone too far in our approach to youth sentencing," Lavy said.
She said the notion that youths need to be sentenced to life without parole came about in the 1990s as part of a larger wave of tough-on-crime legislation at the national and state level. Since then, advocates have turned the tide by championing research suggesting that juvenile offenders can be rehabilitated. They have been bolstered by Supreme Court decisions over the past decade making it more difficult to sentence minors to life without parole. The court has basically suggested that the sentence be used in the rarest of circumstances and said that mandatory life sentences sans parole are unconstitutional.
In Utah, the debate to eliminate the practice from the books went pretty smoothly, said state Rep. Lowry Snow (R), who sponsored the bill.
"I didn't have to twist a lot of arms," he said.
Snow and advocates say the arguments speak for themselves; they cite research that adolescents' brains are still growing and, thus, are not as skilled as adults' in controlling impulses or thinking through long-term actions.
"They're not the same people when they're 16, 17, 18 than they are when they're 40 and 50 years old," he said.
Another argument that seems to resonate among more conservative, religious lawmakers is one of redemption. "Utah is very prone to a recognition that there can be redemption and people can be given a second chance," Snow said.
About 2,500 people in America have been sentenced to life without parole for a crime they committed when they were under 18. There is very little polling on what Americans think about that. In 2005, when the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for people under 18, the Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of people were against death penalty for minors. (That compares with 68 percent support for the death penalty overall — a clear indication that Americans are less willing to apply harsh punishment to minors.)
At its basic level, the debate over whether to keep or get rid of life sentences without parole mirrors the debate over the death penalty: What's the most appropriate way to punish someone for a heinous crime? In that sense, there is still opposition to the idea of banning life-without-parole sentences for minors.
Some crimes "are so heinous, so violent, so destructive … that maybe in rare cases they should receive the sentence of life without parole," state Rep. Merrill Nelson (R) said on the floor of the Utah statehouse after he spoke with the father of a teen who was killed by another teen. "Why should we take that discretion away from the judge?"
A victims advocacy group, the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, says a ban is out of step for several reasons: The potentially un-ending parole process is often "torture" for a victim's family, and while it doesn't advocate for any specific sentence, it does not see why the life-without-parole option should be taken off the table.
"If the offender appears to be an unrepentant sociopath, for example, who shows little likelihood of ever being deemed safe to be free among us, why would any caring society sentence the victims’ family to the 'life sentence' of unending legal battles?" the advocacy group argues on its website, teenkillers.org.
And success, as described here, is relative. More than half of U.S. states still allow the sentence, after all. But given the broader political context in which these bans are coming, criminal justice reform advocates will take what they can get.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.