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Potential for release proposed for juvenile offenders with life sentences

The latest medical research shows that a person’s brain is not fully developed until their mid-20s.

Is it therefore morally justifiable to sentence a person who commits a crime as a juvenile – even a heinous crime – to a life in prison without any chance for parole?

Rep. Sandra Feist (DFL-New Brighton) says no, and to that end, sponsors a bill that would give juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison a chance for redemption.

HF1300 would make a juvenile offender sentenced to life imprisonment, or a period of confinement that would exceed 15 years, made eligible for early supervised release after serving 15 years in custody. Proposed changes in the bill would be retroactive.

“It does not guarantee release,” she said. “Some of these people cannot be released, to protect public safety.”

The House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee laid the bill over Friday for possible omnibus bill inclusion.

Feist said 97 Minnesota inmates are juvenile offenders serving sentences of 15 years or more, of whom 40 have already served 15 years and would therefore be eligible to undergo a review for possible release.

A newly created Juvenile Review Board would have the power to release inmates into community supervision programs such as probation. It would be required to conduct an initial release hearing as soon as practicable after an inmate becomes eligible for release, and to notify any victim before a hearing and accept a written or oral statement by any victim.

The board would have to consider an inmate’s behavior while in prison, psychological evaluations of the inmate, and the risk to the community by releasing the inmate, among other considerations. It could not grant supervised release to a person who has not successfully completed appropriate chemical dependency, sex offender, and/or mental health treatment.

Preston Shipp, a former prosecutor in Tennessee, said the juvenile criminal cases he prosecuted nearly always focused solely on determining justice for the crimes committed, and only rarely touched on the potential for future redemption.

Shipp, now with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, said it’s also important to find out what young offenders can become. “It is important to not be so focused on the punishment that we neglect to think about the promise that all kids have to make positive change."

Twenty-six states have made similar changes in their laws to give juvenile offenders with life sentences a chance to be released, he said, adding that the recidivism rate is just 1.14% among those released nationwide, which now totals more than 950 people.

The prospect for redemption is front of mind for Rep. Patricia Mueller (R-Austin).

“Rehabilitation is biblical,” she said. “The idea that we’re going to hold very young children to a life behind bars does not sit well with me. We have to find that balance between holding people accountable and allowing them to be new, to be redeemed."


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