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Behind bars -- for life -- before the age of 17 in Texas

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The criminal justice system is designed to convict guilty individuals and impose upon them a sentence that will both punish and deter them from future illegal activities. Further, this punishment is supposed to be measurable to the crime committed. While this system often works, there are some occasions upon which many might question whether the punishment truly fits the crime. It is in these instances that vigorous criminal defense is most needed.

One particular example of a seemingly harsh penalty is that of life in prison for crimes committed by juvenile offenders. In Texas, there are some 1,900 inmates who were convicted before the age of 17. A criminal conviction and sentence of life in prison at this young age is difficult for some to swallow for two particularly compelling reasons.

First, when 16-year-olds are sentenced to prison for life, they can serve 20 to 60 years more than another, much older, convicted individual who committed the same crime. Second, a 15 or 16-year-olds have not yet matured to the point where it is reasonable to consider that they truly understood the nature of the act they committed.

For example, a young Texas man was convicted of murder when he was just 15-years-old. He lost his mother when he was 13, after witnessing his father murder her. After this horrific incident, it seemed the world crumbled before the boy. He dropped out of school and quit ROTC.

One day, he and a group of others allegedly robbed two men. After the group led the men down some railroad tracks, someone yelled to shoot. All the gunmen fired at the same time, however, it was the 15-year-old's bullet that matched to the man who was hit in his side. While the shooters ran off, the injured man bled to death near the tracks. The 15-year-old was convicted for murder shortly thereafter. Today, he is 20 and remains an inmate in the state of Texas for life.

On the mind of many lawmakers recently is whether life sentences are appropriate for minors. However, advocates who vocalize the injustice such a policy imposes on those young people may help change this potentially broken system in the future. For now, those accused of crimes at a young age, but do all they can to protect their rights to avoid lengthy sentences.

Source: The Houston Chronicle, "Young killer did the crime, but should he pay a lifetime?," Sept. 10, 2012

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