The crushingly high cost of imprisonment in the U.S. has even law-and-order hard-liners looking to reverse decades of long mandatory minimum sentences.
Virginia lawmakers should keep the trend in mind in giving an open-minded hearing to legislation that would provide juvenile offenders convicted as adults an avenue to seek a reduction in sentence at age 35 or after serving at least 20 years, whichever is later.
SB 142 would apply only to long sentences for nonhomicidal crimes. Long is defined as at least 25 years. And the opportunity for modification would be a narrow one, as laid out in the proposal by state Sen. David Marsden of Fairfax.
Still, it would offer some hope to people who have matured behind bars that they might have a productive life in society one day.
Might - if their conduct and academic, vocational and emotional development while in prison have been good enough to persuade a panel of jurists they no longer are the same people who were capable of the crimes they committed in their youth.
The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk reports there are at least 22 inmates serving life without parole for nonhomicidal crimes committed as teenagers. In November, the newspaper profiled one: Travion Blount, who at 15 was tried for armed robbery, convicted of 49 felonies and sentenced to six life terms plus 118 years. Two older teens who pleaded guilty received 10- and 13-year sentences.
Blount might be as or even more dangerous in 25 years. But he might be a wholly different and better person. It would be reasonable to allow inmates like him the opportunity to show they have grown into adults worthy of a sentencing review.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that sentencing teenagers to life without parole for crimes that took no one's life is cruel and unusual punishment, and thus unconstitutional. Such young offenders must have some realistic opportunity for release.
Virginia's Supreme Court since has ruled juvenile life sentences in the commonwealth meet the standard because offenders have a chance to seek geriatric parole when they turn 60. Marsden's bill could lop decades off that for a juvenile offender who, after 20 or so years, could seek to have a sentence reviewed.
If the court agreed, the chief justice would appoint four circuit or retired circuit judges to consider the petition for modification, as well as evidence victims could submit on possible impacts. Three jurists would have to vote to approve a sentencing change.
First, of course, lawmakers have to vote SB 142 into law. It now sits in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee, and, The Virginian-Pilot reports, faces a doubtful future in the House.
No politician wants to cast a vote that might be construed as being soft on crime. But policymakers need to be both tough and smart to serve taxpayers and the interests of justice well.
Marsden is no dewy-eyed naif. He has worked his entire career in juvenile justice, and has been an acting director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice under both Republican and Democratic governors.
He's a witness to what science tells us: "People do change. We have to provide this mechanism for justice."