Congress Blog

Congress should ban life without parole sentences for children 

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As a conservative Republican, I was surely privileged to serve as assistant Senate majority leader under a great man -- former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.). But long before my career in public service started, I was a teenager who committed serious crimes, risking my own life and the lives of others.

My list of childhood offenses is long. When I was a high school student in Cody, Wyo., some friends and I intentionally went to an abandoned old barracks structure to cause damage. We decided to torch the property - otherwise known as arson - now punishable by years in prison if no one is injured and up to life in prison if the fire causes someone's death. Luckily for all involved, no one was hurt.

But my stupidity did not end there. My friends and I raised hell in our community, firing our .22 caliber rifles at mailboxes, blowing holes in several, and someone even killed a cow. We also fired at a county road grader tractor. Federal authorities charged us with destroying government property and I pleaded guilty and went on probation.

On one particular night, as I arrived very late - as I often did - at a club in Laramie, Wyo., that was popular with African-Americans, I saw a fellow student leaving. It was obvious he had been in a knife fight, so I asked him what happened. He said he had uttered a racial slur and I responded that if that was his attitude, he was surely in the wrong place. He attacked me and I shoved him down, just as the police arrived.

Police assumed I was responsible for the guy's knife wounds. When they attempted to arrest me, I belted the officer, and I was taken to jail. My wife of 64 plus years - who was then my girlfriend - refused to bail me out, so I spent the night there. That's when I decided to marry her. She was sure as hell smarter than I was.

I did some other pretty stupid things that could have caused a lot more harm had I not been so lucky. A lot of Americans may be able to relate to all this, especially parents of teenagers.

Children's brains are not fully developed. This is why we don't allow children to enter into contracts or vote, or enlist in the military - they are not old enough to handle the responsibility. It seems only right that the same logic should apply to punishments in the criminal justice system.

This does not mean that child offenders should not serve time appropriate to the severity of their crimes or that every child convicted of a serious crime should necessarily be released from prison. It does mean, however, that every child convicted of a serious crime that receives a lengthy prison sentence, including a life sentence, should be given the opportunity to demonstrate later in life that he or she has been rehabilitated and is deserving of a second chance.

As of today, 21 states and D.C. completely prohibit the use of life without parole sentences on children under 18 years of age, with conservative states like Texas, Arkansas, Utah, and my own native state of Wyoming leading the way. The U.S. Supreme Court has also recognized that children are "constitutionally different" from adults in a series of rulings that have scaled back the use of extreme sentences on children, including life without parole, which the court has deemed to be "cruel and unusual punishment."

We are all sinners, but salvation and redemption are there for all of God's children. Forgiveness, tolerance, rehabilitation and restoration are at the core of our beliefs and those of most major religions. They are also part of a conservative philosophy of governing that puts faith in the individual and believes that every human is worth more than the worst thing they have ever done. Moses, David and the Apostle Paul were all guilty of killing but found redemption and purpose through the grace of God. Shouldn't we show this same mercy to our nation's children, allowing them a chance at redemption?

Thanks to the leadership of Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) legislation that would end life without parole sentences for children in the federal criminal justice system has been introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate. During this lame-duck session, Congress should ensure that any criminal justice reform bill sent to the president includes these provisions. Perhaps nothing is more important in the ongoing criminal justice reform discussion than the need to change the way we sentence children. We must remember that mercy is justice, too, and no one is more deserving of our mercy and the opportunity for a second chance than our children. 

Simpson served in the senate from 1979-1997. He was as assistant Senate Republican leader from 1985-1995.