By Peter Eibert
COLUMBUS, OH – Peggy Lehner, a former Republican Ohio State Senator, recently wrote an opinion piece in The Columbus Dispatch calling for a federal law to ban life sentences without parole for children.
Lehner was one of the main proponents of legislation that prohibited the sentencing of children to life without the possibility of parole in Ohio. A person is defined as a child when they were under 18 years old when they committed the offense. This legislation was signed into law by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine in January, 2021.
Ohio’s legislation not only bans the possibility of sentencing a child to life without parole, but also grants parole eligibility to anyone already sentenced to life without parole when they were under 18 at the time of their offense.
Ohio, 30 other states, and the District of Columbia have all de jure or de facto banned life without parole sentences for children—many have passed legislation banning such sentences, while others merely have no one serving such sentences.
Based on the majority of the nation’s shifting views, Lehner believes that “it is time for the federal government to follow Ohio and the majority of states by abolishing life without parole for children.”
She then urged Ohio’s Senators, Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Sherrod Brown to support the First Step Implementation Act, an upcoming, bipartisan piece of legislation that would aim to abolish life without parole for children nationwide.
More specifically, the First Step Implementation Act would give people who were sentenced as children the chance to petition a judge for sentencing review after serving 20 years of their sentence.
Lehner emphasized that the bill just “gives a chance to go before a judge and show that they have changed and deserve a second chance,” rather than “guarantee(ing) release.”
While Lehner said she wants justice to be served, she also firmly held that children must not be thrown away “without hope of a second chance,” and that “redemption and rehabilitation are possible for all children.”
She further justified her beliefs by citing how children’s brains are “not fully developed,” and that children are more immature and impulsive than adults.”
Even the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized this discrepancy between the brains of children and the brains of adults.
The Court described this discrepancy in Graham v. Florida, a 2009 case in which the Court ruled that sentencing a child to life in prison without parole for non-homicide offenses violated the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause.
In spite of—or probably even as a consequence of—children’s less developed brains, Lehner emphatically asserted that children have “tremendous potential for positive growth and change.”
Indeed, she maintains second chances are of paramount importance to people who made a mistake while their brain was still developing. She contended that “even children who have caused great harm can experience profound transformation.”
Lehner speculated that the First Step Implementation Act would produce excellent results for the nation like those of states that have already passed similar legislation.
She cited Arkansas’ similar legislation from 2017—legislation that served as the model for Ohio’s own legislation on the issue. Arkansas paroles about 60 percent of people who go up for review.
Even better, most of the people who receive second chances are “thriving” and contributing positively to their communities.
Lehner could not overstate the significance of the First Step Implementation Act: she argues it will “help begin to create a federal juvenile justice system that respects children’s human rights and reflects our values as American,” adding, “no child is beyond our help or hope.”