In 2009, 15-year-old Alyssa Bustamante brutally murdered her 9-year-old neighbor and then recounted her enjoyment of the horrific act in her diary. Last month, after offering an apology to the victim’s family at her sentencing hearing, Bustamante was given life in prison with the possibility of parole. 

The gruesome details of Bustamante’s case caused some to question why such a violent criminal would be given an opportunity to someday be released from prison. For others, it calls into question the trend toward harsh sentencing of minors who are treated as adults by the criminal justice system. 

According to the Children’s Defense Fund, an estimated 200,000 youth are arrested, tried or sentenced as adults each year, and two-thirds of those incarcerated have committed nonviolent offenses. The United States is also the only country to sentence juveniles to life without parole, and more than 2,500 juvenile offenders are serving such sentences. On March 20, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, which question the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles convicted of homicide to life without parole. 

Age appropriate?

Catholic organizations, along with other faith-based and nonprofit advocacy groups, are calling for reform of the juvenile justice system to take into account the unique circumstances of teens who commit crimes. Some, like Bustamante, have come from broken homes or suffer from mental impairment. And in all cases, the ongoing development of youth makes them distinctly different from adult offenders. 

“Science and research have proven that young people’s brains are not fully developed, that they are more susceptible to peer pressure, they are more impulsive and they don’t have the same ability to assess risks as adults,” said Jody Kent, national director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. “Young people need to be held accountable, but in a way that really reflects their unique capacity to change and to reform their behavior over time.” 

Kent, whose organization works with faith-based groups and other agencies to raise awareness of the issue, told Our Sunday Visitor that putting teens in jail for life doesn’t act as a deterrent because youth don’t take such consequences into consideration before committing a crime. But receiving such harsh sentences does discourage the possible rehabilitation of offenders, she said. 

“It strips them of any hope of participating in the community again, and it is a message that they are beyond redemption,” Kent said. “To declare them worthless, to discard them forever, to me is morally reprehensible.”

Case-by-case evaluation

But there are more than just moral concerns over giving harsh sentences to youth. Shay Bilchik, director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, said that research indicates that treating juvenile offenders in the same manner as adults leads to higher rates of recidivism. Putting a teen in jail, he said, can push them further down the wrong path by interrupting their education, hurting their family life and separating them from positive influences. 

Bilchik said that while approaches to juvenile justice have changed for the better in recent years, there is still room for improvement. Sentencing needs to more accurately reflect the potential risk the offender poses, and programs aimed at rehabilitation need to be closely evaluated to determine their success. 

“If we do these pieces well, we’ll end up with fewer kids presenting a danger to the public because we’re going to come up with more effective responses to that crime,” said Bilchik. “Sometimes that means locking the right kids up — the really dangerous kids who are the highest risk — and other times it means making sure we’ve identified a kid who can be served in their community so we don’t actually do more harm than good in working with them.” 

Even in cases where teens have committed heinous crimes, Bilchik sees hope for rehabilitation. He recalls working as a prosecutor on a case in Florida where a 12-year-old boy murdered his mother and brother. Rather than being sentenced to life, he was placed in a treatment program with his progress closely monitored. 

Though such a sentence may seem controversial, Bilchik said in that case it was a success. 

“I think what we need is to have an individualized system of justice where we evaluate every offender and every crime,” Bilchik said. “We need to be careful not to characterize the entire population by those headline offenders.” 

Healing approach

Jonni Alcantara, advocate for juveniles facing prison. Courtesy of Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative.

For Catholic groups that work with young offenders, juvenile justice requires a holistic approach that takes into account the rehabilitation of the offender as well as the needs of their family and their victims. 

Jesuit Father Michael Kennedy, executive director of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative in Culver City, Calif., said a model focused purely on punitive measures has proven ineffective and only destroys lives. 

“You don’t help people’s pain by being more vindictive,” Father Kennedy told OSV. “That’s the problem in our system. There’s no mechanism in which people’s pain can be dealt with.” 

Father Kennedy said that the growing trend toward restorative justice has yielded much more positive results. By bringing all affected parties around the same table, offenders can see the true impact of their actions and the victims can begin to address their suffering and forgive the perpetrator. The process is difficult, but it gives both victims and offenders a chance to work through what has happened and to move forward with their lives. 

That doesn’t mean juvenile offenders should not still serve their time, Father Kennedy added, and rehabilitation may not be achieved in all cases. But he believes nothing is solved by putting youth who commit crimes in jail for life. 

“Sometimes it is a horrible [crime] that’s happened,” he said. “But God forgives us, he gives us a second chance. We’re redeemable no matter what we’ve done.” 

Scott Alessi writes from Illinois