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Juvenile Justice & Second Chances

Written By: Stephen Despin

Teenagers historically make poor decisions; however, they learn from those mistakes. We were all there once ourselves were we not? I know that there’s likely very few of us that can say we made ALL the right decisions as teenagers. It’s part of growing up, it’s part of figuring out the world and learning the skills and knowledge they need to learn to navigate it. Then it’s not like they’re going to get to much better at it after the teenager years. Many young men and women continue to make mistakes and poor decisions into their early twenties in college. Science tells us that adolescents decision making portion of the brain isn’t fully developed yet. This is likely true considering the poor decisions often made at that age. Data also tells us that juveniles at that age are also the most likely to be able to be rehabilitated. In fact, recidivism rates are less than 1% in juveniles that spent at least 1.5 years in a juvenile program.

Why then is our sentencing so harsh on this age group within our criminal justice system? I understand that the number one priority is the safety of the community, however that doesn’t mean we should deny individuals who’ve earned it a second chance simply because of the few bad apples that may never be reformed… FYI, those are few and far between. Here in New Mexico, they don’t have life sentences for juveniles, but they do have the ability to stack sentences and give sentencing lengths that are ultimately a life sentence. For example, we have individuals here in NM that were incarcerated as a teenager serving 80+ year sentences with no possibility for parole. With an age group that’s so unlikely to reoffend this is insane, in my opinion. I know that an individual must face accountability when an individual violates the rights of another individual and I’m not advocating a guarantee of release. I’m simply saying that we should be giving individuals incarcerated as children the opportunity to appear before the parole board. This simply allows those who have reformed themselves, took advantage of the time incarcerated and gained skills to be successful in society, and have worked hard to become different people than when they went in an opportunity for a second chance.

If they appear before the parole board and they are still someone who is a danger to society then by all means keep them in prison, however, if they aren’t then we should be giving them at least the opportunity for a second chance. For many juveniles prison certainly seems to be a wake-up call. Our criminal justice system was meant to be for rehabilitation; however, we’ve moved towards a system that focuses on punitive measures. Our system is broken in so many ways and one of those ways is our juvenile justice system. We need a better way; we need a system that focuses on dignity and rehabilitation. The hole it leaves in the families and the community aren’t the only effects, it’s costly to incarcerate a juvenile for life. It costs taxpayers roughly $2.2 million to incarcerate a juvenile for life in the United States. This is more than a college graduate would generate in tax revenue in their lifetime.

One case here in New Mexico involves a young man falling victim to getting talked into making a poor decision by a friend. His friend talked him into robbing a store, he went along with him. They entered the store armed to rob the store; he was under the impression they were only robbing the store. He stayed at the door as the lookout for his friend. During the commission of the robbery his friend shot and killed the store clerk.

However, because he was there with the friend during the commission of the crime he got just as harsh of a sentence as the friend who killed the clerk. All he did was make the poor decision to do something he shouldn’t have done and be a lookout for his friend. He never thought that something would go wrong or that someone would get killed. This is something that could’ve happened to anyone of us, it’s something that could happen to one of our kids, or something that could happen to someone’s grandchildren. Could you imagine a single bad decision costing a kid 80+ years? This is absolutely unimaginable to me.

Criminal Justice Reform is an important issue for me and issues involving kids is even more important to me. One look at the foster care systems and the issues within it and it’s a wonder that more of these kids don’t end up within the criminal justice system. Should we be treating kids who have been shown to not have fully developed brains and underdeveloped decision-making skills like adults? Should we be sentencing these kids as adults, and should we be sending them to prison for these extremely lengthy periods of time when they’ve been shown to have such a lower rate of recidivism? I don’t think so. We need to shift our focus to rehabilitation. Offer programs in prisons that allow them to gain skills which will be valuable when they re-enter their communities. Help mentor them down a better path through mentorship programs that will hold them accountable for their decisions, in most cases these kids just need some attention and guidance to take them down a different path in life. This is a far more effective and cost-efficient solution than the punitive measures we currently impose in our broken system.

We have an opportunity to bring forward change on this issue here in New Mexico. Here in the Land of Enchantment we can give these kids an opportunity for a second chance but it’s going to take a big effort on the part of fellow New Mexicans like you. Grassroots is always the most effective engine for change. Together we can drive change on this issue all the way to the Governor’s desk. We had a great grassroots effort that drove the bill all the way to its last Floor vote in the last session. With more help from our neighbors, we can get it across the finish line the next time. There are grassroots efforts going on right now working towards these reforms. We’re making phone calls on it every day, hosting virtual events on social media platforms, and working to build a movement to break barriers in our criminal justice system. We need your help! We need you to tell your friends, we need to build an unstoppable movement of change leading into the next legislative session and keep up the pressure till the legislation is signed into law. Are you ready?

If you’re ready, please feel free to reach out to me through my contact page or at the contact information listed on the contact page of my website. I very much look forward to hearing from you and I look forward to creating amazing change together within our criminal justice system.