Sunday, 15 May 2011

Justice when the killer is a child

Some editorials are tougher to write than others. This is one of them.
The issue is first-degree murder with special aggravating circumstances – by definition a horrific crime and one for which society at large, as well as the loved ones and friends of the victim, rightly expect justice. Sometimes, justice is defined as the death penalty, though in California it is rarely carried out. More often, it is defined as life in prison without the possibility of parole.
So be it.
But in this case, the issue is also children. Does the definition of justice change when the convicted murderer was younger than 18 when the crime was committed, when that young killer may himself – or herself – have never before been in serious trouble with the law or may have suffered years of physical or sexual abuse?
The definition of justice does then change, at least in part. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that killers under 18 cannot be subject to the death penalty.
But the federal government, the District of Columbia, California and dozens of other states do allow sentences of life without parole for some juveniles. The United States is the only country in the world that allows such sentences for minors. California has some 275 people serving life without parole for crimes they committed as minor teenagers.
The issue came to prominence again early this year when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in one of his final acts before leaving office, granted clemency to Sara Kruzan of Riverside, who was 16 in 1994 when she shot and killed her pimp. Schwarzenegger reduced her sentence from life without parole to 25 years to life, giving Kruzan the possibility of parole.
And earlier this month, the Senate Public Safety Committee in Sacramento approved a bill by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, that would allow courts to review the cases of juveniles sentenced to life without parole after 10 years, potentially allowing some to receive a new sentence of 25 years to life. Its next committee hearing is scheduled for May 2.
This is the fourth legislative attempt to change the law since 2004. It has understandably galvanized organizations like Crime Victims United of California, many of whose activist members know the deep and never-ending pain of losing a loved one to violent crime and who don’t particularly care about the age of the killer at the time.
We sympathize with the opponents’ anguish over the possibility that any of these killers could someday be paroled. That is why this is a difficult editorial to write.
But American justice is not based on vengeance alone. Compassion is part of it, too. If any killer deserves compassion and at least a chance for a productive life, it is a killer child. We hope that this year Yee’s bill becomes law.

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