America is the only nation on earth that sentences its children to die behind bars. We have thousands of throw-away children wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in prisons stretching from sea to shining sea. Colorado is the first state to reverse that trend, by lowering life to 40 years. A modest beginning. Thanks to a partnership among district attorneys, Rep. Cheri Jahn, Governor Bill Ritter and The Pendulum Foundation, our Governor also created the nation's first juvenile clemency board, which has been universally lauded. With this act Governor Ritter and the board acknowledge that, from their brain development to their capacity for rehabilitation, children are different from adults. Theoretically, those who were convicted as 14-15-16 or 17-year-olds deserve a second look.But political reality intrudes.We all have different versions of right and wrong. It seems wrong to me that a kid gets sentenced to life for a hit and run that generally garners probation or a few years in prison. Or that a 38-year-old son receives sixteen years for setting his father on fire over a minor argument (the dad later died), while a 15-year-old who kills his molesters is buried behind bars. Others looked at the same set of circumstances and had no trouble trying, convicting and incarcerating those same cases. I know several of these young prisoners and believe they can be rehabilitated. But we Americans are a merciless people. We talk about redemption but we don't practice it. Certainly not for a gang kid who participates in a drive-by or a frightened teen who cleans up for his friend after the friend kills his abuser. The facts are spun and re-spun on all sides. Not much compassion. A lot of hatred. And pesky political realities, such as: Where's that 15-year-old's constituency? Who will speak for him? Who even cares?I often ask myself, "If I were Governor Ritter would I EVER give any of these kids a commutation or clemency? What's in it politically for him -- beyond our assertion that redemption should carry as great a moral weight as retribution? Well, we believe we've found something that's "in it" for everybody. We can give some of these kids a second chance plus promote public safety plus practice redemption and rehabilitation rather than retribution.Our solution?Programs.Programs inside. And more programs inside. Cognitive behavior therapy. Life skills. College. Right now, young LWOPS, since they're never coming out of prison, get few programs. However, the same bill that lowered life sentences also mandated these young prisoners get the same opportunities for programs as those who are eligible for parole. Provide a rainbow of proven programs. Not only will these programs make our young LWOPS far better candidates for a commutation or clemency, all studies agree such programs transform thinking and lives. Once these offenders successfully complete all programs, we propose that they be given a conditional commutation. Young LWOPS would then complete their re-integration into society via a privately funded rehabilitation center. The entire process could take years. We don't care. What we want to do is get them out of prison and firmly down the road to rehabilitation. Once upon a time-- oh, say, 20 years ago--when America was a different nation, these kids never got much prison time anyway. They received treatment, were rehabilitated and released back into society where they obeyed the laws, worked hard, paid their taxes, and disappeared into middle-class society. We ask that some of our young LWOPS receive that same opportunity. An opportunity for a second chance.We believe that it's long past time when we recycle only our trash.We believe it's time we recycle our children, as well. Mary Ellen Johnson, Executive Director Pendulum Foundation
"In America we recycle our trash and throw away our children."Those words were spoken by a mother whose 16-year-old is serving life in prison without possibility of parole (LWOP). Her son was convicted in one of those "redneck" states, but his sentence isn't unusual.