Spotlight on discretionary aspect of criminal sentencing

It has long been a maxim of criminal law in Tennessee and nationally that sentencing outcomes should not universally be the same for adult and juvenile offenders, respectively, when they have both committed a closely similar crime.

Although that principle is not always applied in practice, it frequently is the case that younger offenders are often treated dissimilarly from adults when it comes to sentencing outcomes.

The rationale for that is well appreciated by most people. Readers of our blog were all adolescents at one time, and can easily think back to a time when personal views about important things in life were not fully formed or based on more than juvenile notions unbacked by much real-world experience.

We all grew beyond that point, with many of us likely being thankful that youthful transgressions were viewed precisely as such by authority figures and law enforcers.

That is, many people are later glad for a second chance they received when a crime they committed while younger was responded to from the perspective that redemption was possible and a second chance should be allowed.

A recent case from Virginia seems to well reflect such a viewpoint, with a prosecutor there clearly emphasizing education rather than punishment in the sentencing recommendation she passed along to a judge concerning the conduct of five male teens.

Those offenders were charged with unlawful entry and the destruction of property after they defaced a school's walls with racist-charged graffiti. Notably, several of the boys were minorities, with their spray-painted messages including both "WHITE POWER" and "BROWN POWER" entries.

The prosecutor stated her belief that simple naivety rather than any real animus guided the boys' behavior, and that they didn't even appreciate to any material degree why a public uproar occurred over their conduct.

Seizing on what she called "a teachable moment," she heavily emphasized education in her proposed sentencing, which was agreed to by the court.

The bottom line: The teenagers' cases will be dismissed if they fully comply with an order to read and complete reports on a number of books that will help teach them about racial identity and acceptance. Additionally, they must write a research paper focused upon hate speech and why it is anathema in America's diverse national community, and also visit the national Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C.

Clearly, the sentence is more about learning and redemption for younger offenders, rather than a boilerplate punitive response.

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