What if your adult life was determined entirely by a terrible thing you did when you were a teenager? Last week, a New York appellate court held that in the context of criminal law, such finality based on teenage conduct is unconstitutional.

In 1976, 16-year-old Dempsey Hawkins committed a crime with devastating and tragic consequences; he strangled his 14-year-old girlfriend to death. He was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 22 years to life. So far, he has served 37 years in prison. At each of his nine parole hearings, the New York parole board rejected his application.

At Hawkins’s most recent hearing in 2014, the parole board stated that granting parole “would so deprecate the seriousness of [his] offense as to undermine respect for the law.” Though Hawkins expressed remorse for his crime, demonstrated exemplary conduct in prison, and would otherwise be an ideal candidate for release, the board denied him on the basis of the crime itself.

Hawkins may soon have another chance to earn his freedom. Last week, a New York appellate court upheld a lower court decision annulling the parole board’s 2014 decision and ordering a new parole hearing. In the new hearing, the parole board must consider Hawkins’s youth at the time of the crime. The Appellate Division, Third Department, court determined that the parole board denied Hawkins a constitutionally-required “meaningful opportunity for release.” Before making a decision about parole, the parole board was required to consider “the significance of petitioner’s youth and its attendant circumstances at the time of the commission of the crime.” It failed to do so. The parole board will now have to go back and consider the role of Hawkins’ youth in the commission of the crime. If the board determines that the crime reflects “transient immaturity,” Hawkins could be offered parole.

In issuing this decision, the New York court relied on Graham v. Florida, Miller v. Alabama, Montgomery v. Louisiana, and Roper v. Simmons — a line of cases which barred adolescents from the harshest punishments because of the fundamental differences in culpability between adolescents and adults. Starting with Roper, the Supreme Court explained in these cases that adolescents are different for sentencing purposes for three primary reasons:

  • First, adolescents lack maturity and have “an underdeveloped sense of responsibility, leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking.”
  • Second, they are “more vulnerable to negative influences and outside pressures.” Because they have limited control over their own environments, they “lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings.”
  • Third, their “character is not as well formed as an adult’s; [their] traits are less fixed and [their] actions less likely to be evidence of irretrievable depravity.”

As the Supreme Court explained in Graham, since retribution “relates to an offender’s blameworthiness, the case for retribution is not as strong with a minor as with an adult … The need for incapacitation is lessened, too, because ordinary adolescent development diminishes the likelihood that a juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society.” Because of their diminished culpability, juveniles are entitled to a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” Miller further elaborated that, before they are sentenced, juvenile offenders are entitled to a hearing to distinguish “children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity” from the small set of children who demonstrate “irreparable corruption.”

The Third Department’s decision is important because it extends the meaningful hearing requirement beyond sentencing to include parole hearings as well. This decision reflects the reality that it is impossible to determine if a child is truly “irreparable” until the child has an opportunity to grow up. The message is clear: the possibility of parole in name alone is not enough to satisfy the Eighth Amendment’s requirement for a “meaningful opportunity for release.”

This New York court is not alone in relying on Miller to insist that child offenders be granted an actual — as opposed to theoretical — opportunity to live outside the walls of a prison. The reasoning in this decision mirrors arguments made by the ACLU in Maryland. There, the governor must explicitly approve release for anyone serving a life sentence. If history is any guide, a child sentenced to life in Maryland can expect to die in prison — no one serving a life sentence for a crime committed as a child has been paroled in the past twenty years. The ACLU is alleging that Maryland’s system violates the Eighth Amendment rights of juveniles sentenced to life because they have no real opportunity for release.

Increasingly, neuroscience research on the adolescent brain is influencing the way that policymakers are treating kids in the criminal justice system. Through a person’s mid-twenties, the prefrontal cortex continues to develop in ways that affect criminal responsibility. In recognition of this fact, Connecticut and Illinois are both considering raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 21. Yet, when it comes to kids and crime, New York continues to lag behind the rest of the country. Along with North Carolina, New York is one of only two states that automatically charge all 16- and 17-year-olds in adult criminal court.

In fact, adolescent difficulty in considering long-term consequences might have affected Dempsey Hawkins’s decision to take his case to trial in the first place. If Hawkins had pled guilty when he was first charged, he would have completed both his prison sentence and years of parole more than 20 years ago. But Hawkins rejected the offer of 6 to 18 years because, in his own words, as a teenager he “lacked the courage and decency to confess with an apology that may not have consoled but would have resonated louder than silence.”

It is up to the parole board to recognize that Hawkins’s life was not permanently frozen in time, and to genuinely consider whether he has become a different person since 1976.