AR Bill to Amend Current Law of Sentencing a Person Under 21

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In March of 2017, the State of Arkansas Bill 294 (known as Act 539) abolished life without the possibility of parole for those under the age of 18.  In keeping with the national trend, the Fair Sentencing of Minors Act of 2017, passed both chambers of Arkansas legislature and became a strong foundation upon which juvenile justice can now stand.

While we applaud the State of Arkansas, the book isn't finished and we promise to keep writing.  The amount of research on the juvenile mind and its development is as large and as vast as the number of researchers dedicated to understanding these complexities.

On August 1, 2017, a trial court judge in Kentucky declared the state's death penalty statute unconstitutional when applied to defendants who were younger than 21 years of age at the time they committed the crime. This decision came on the cusp of Travis Bredhold who was indicted for a murder that he committed in December of 2013 when he was 18 years, five months old.

Relying heavily on U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005, Roper v. Simmons, which imposed a categorical ban against executing defendants who were under 18 years old when they committed their offense, Bredhold argued adolescents are not deserving of America’s harshest punishments.

Leading adolescent development expert, Dr. Laurence Steinberg, a key expert in Roper, testified in Bredhold,

“[I]f a different version of Roper were heard today, knowing what we know now, one could’ve made the very same arguments about eighteen (18), nineteen (19), and twenty (20) year olds that were made about sixteen (16) and seventeen (17) year olds in Roper.”

The national trend in extensive juvenile brain development research is revealing that the “brain system providing for impulse control are still maturing during adolescence.  Neuroscientists have shown that the part of the brain that improves most during adolescence is the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in complicated decision-making, thinking ahead, planning, comparing risks and rewards.  And the neuroscientific research is showing that over the course of adolescence and into the 20s, there is continued maturation of this part of the brain.”  (NYTimes, Dec. 1, 2009)

In part, the proposed Arkansas Bill reads:

(a)(1) The General Assembly acknowledges and recognizes that the term minors has historically and is currently used to describe people between the age of 18 and 21.  This period of years will be described in this bill as “young adults” to distinguish from minors under 17 years of age.  The term “adult proper” is here used to describe adults over 21 years of age.

Per Dr. Steinberg, “Given the fact that we know that there will be a developmental change in most people, the science says that we should give them a chance to mature out of it.  No one is saying that kids who commit horrific crimes shouldn’t be punished.  But most in the scientific community think that we know that since this person is likely to change, why not revisit this when he’s an adult and see what he’s like?”

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