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NC advocates push for end to juvenile life sentences

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Friday, October 13, 2023   

More than half of U.S. states have already banned life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles. North Carolina isn't one of them - yet.

In a panel discussion with the North Carolina Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, state Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Whitsett, said he backs the need for a scientific approach to address the issues of youth development and criminal justice.

"There needs to be retribution, punishment and so forth, and justice, when certain crimes are committed," he said, "but if the brain is not fully developed, I think we have to take that scientific fact into account."

Many advocates have argued that a sentence without the possibility of hope or incentive for self-improvement for the young offender falls short. However, critics of ending the threat of life sentences have voiced concerns about the impact on victims and public safety.

Also on the panel, North Dakota state Sen. Diane Larson, R-Bismarck, highlighted her state as an example of banning juvenile "life without parole" sentences. With unanimous approval of legislation in 2017, Larson said, North Dakota has prioritized the role of the parole board and eliminated the possibility of life without parole.

"We all think that people who commit terrible crimes should be held accountable; they should be answerable for their crimes," she said. "But there needs to be some opportunity for them to grow up, learn from what they've done, make better choices."

Formerly incarcerated at 16, panelist Anthony Willis spent more than two decades in a North Carolina prison for murder. He received clemency from Gov. Roy Cooper, and offered his own story as a testament to the power of change. Willis said he believes the possibility of eventually going home serves as a powerful motivator for people behind bars, thus fostering a safer environment for prisoners and staff.

"As a teenager, it's very hard to go to prison as a child. Everything that you were taught from your parents, that goes out the window," he said. "It's a totally different culture while you're in prison and you don't really have that guidance, that mentor, that person to try to help you develop into an adult. So, if you have a 'life without parole' sentence, there is no incentive at all to do the right thing."

Willis and others said the key to North Carolina changing its juvenile sentencing practices lies in considering all parties, focusing on rehabilitation and determining the resources needed for successful re-entry.


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