Sentencing of teens should be up to judges

Published 9:37 pm Thursday, February 1, 2007

Bolstered by the testimony of state Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz before his committee, the effort of state Rep. George Flaggs Jr. to modify how teens accused of violent crimes are questioned and sentenced stands a good chance of being modified by the Mississippi Legislature.

Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, is a youth court counselor in Warren County. He has become closely involved in the case of Tyler Edmonds, an Oktibbeha County teen who was 13 when arrested in 2003 for his role in the shooting death of his half-sister’s husband.

Edmonds was sentenced, as the state requires for all murder convictions, to life without parole. The state Court of Appeals upheld that conviction, but the Supreme Court reversed. That means Edmonds will get a review, but the Legislature should avoid this situation ever arising again.

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The issue is not whether Flaggs is soft on crime. He’s not. In fact, he agreed several years ago when Mississippi changed its stance regarding youthful offenders.

A few months on a calendar should not serve as a shield for a teen who commits violence in a rape, robbery or homicide, and a court process now allows certification of offenders under 18 to stand trial as adults.

Diaz’s problem is that the law now ties the hands of trial judges to impose sentences also required by the Legislature. Discretion by a judge, who searched the eyes of a young criminal to see if there’s a chance of reform, is not allowed.

Flaggs is chairman of the Juvenile Justice Committee. His proposal is to provide judges an exemption from the mandatory sentencing rules if the offender is a minor. Also, the legislation would modify how authorities can obtain and use confessions obtained from children.

This was a particularly objectionable part of the Edmonds case. While his mother gave authorities permission to question him, it also served to make Edmonds the chief witness against himself without realizing the consequences of that decision.

As appeals judge Joseph Lee wrote in a dissent: “Tyler lacks the capacity to vote, drive, get married, enter into a contract or even drop out of school. But, under the law, he was deemed to have the capacity to waive fundamental state and federal constitutional rights.”

No doubt some will see the change as coddling criminals. They’ll be wrong. Flaggs bill is about assuring justice and should win House and Senate approval.