Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
By WV State Rep. John Ellem
I am currently serving in my 14th year (seventh term) as a legislator in the West Virginia House of Delegates.
I am writing to call attention to an issue of significant public (and moral) policy that we recently addressed in the 2014 legislative session: the issue of holding our youth accountable for serious crimes.
West Virginians take pride in the natural beauty of our state and its reputation for hospitality. Likewise, the state also has a no-nonsense attitude towards crime and a long history of tough-on-crime laws, and we enjoy one of the nations lowest crime rates.
However, in recent years we have realized the need to not only be tough on crime but also “smart” on crime, including those committed by our children.
That’s why I co-sponsored and supported a bill, HB 4210, which our governor signed into law last month. It ensures public safety, addresses the needs of victims and focuses on the potential for our youngsters to grow and change. In an era of shrinking state budgets, it also helps us to curb the runaway costs of incarceration.
In line with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling nearly two years ago in Miller v. Alabama that it is unconstitutional to impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences upon children, we updated our statutes to prohibit such a punishment. In its place, we came up with alternatives that ensure youth who commit serious crimes are still sent to prison for a significant amount of time, but with the hope of a second chance.
Our new law provides judges discretion to impose a range of prison time up to and including life in prison but with the possibility of parole. The new law requires judges to consider 15 specific factors when determining the appropriate sentence for children who have been convicted of serious crimes. Among these are the child’s age, role in the crime, intellectual capacity, history of trauma, family background and potential for rehabilitation.
The new law also provides for some important mandates as well as guidelines for our parole board. West Virginians who are convicted and sentenced in adult court for crimes committed as children will be eligible for review before the parole board after they have served a minimum of 15 years.
The parole board is to consider such things as the offender’s educational documents both before and while in prison, the age at the time of the offense, efforts towards rehabilitation and any other factors the board considers relevant. Of course, parole eligibility does not guarantee someone will be granted parole, but rather ensures that the person gets the opportunity for a full and meaningful parole hearing.
These reasonable and important changes to West Virginia sentencing laws reflect updated research documenting that the brains of children are not as developed as those of adults. As a result, children often are not as able as adults to assess the risks of their behaviors, think through the long-term repercussions of their actions or avoid peer pressure. Moreover, research also has found that children are uniquely capable of change.
As a parent, I understand this logic. We all fall short at times, and as a person of faith, I believe we all can be redeemed, particularly our children. Young people, often exposed to violence, poverty and neglect in home environments they cannot escape, sometimes make tragic mistakes. We should and can still hold them accountable for the harm they have caused but in an age-appropriate way that motivates them to learn from their mistakes and work toward the possibility of release.
Furthermore, as a fiscal conservative, I support this approach because it costs an estimated $2.5 million to imprison a child for life. However, we know from research that children can and do “age out” of delinquent behaviors by their late 20s. Given this fact, our states do not benefit from keeping them imprisoned for their entire lives without an opportunity for parole review.
As minority chair on the Judiciary Committee, I can report that we passed this bill with widespread bipartisan support. I hope it will serve as a model for other state legislatures.
We have the unique opportunity and privilege to decrease our public spending, help some of the most vulnerable members of our society and strengthen our communities. We can’t afford to waste it.
State Rep. John Ellem, R-Wood, is a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates. He can be reached at email@example.com.