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Outside the Box: Courts have ruled that sentencing kids to die in prison is cruel and unusual. Now they’re reconsidering when adulthood starts. 

Sheldon Mattis was 18 years old when he committed the crime that would lead him to be sentenced to die in prison. 

In 2013, a jury found that he handed fellow teen Nyasani Watt the gun that Watt would use to kill another teenager. Although only Watt fired the gun, both were convicted of first-degree murder for their role in the devastating killing. 

The judge who sentenced them, though, couldn’t consider the scope of Mattis’s role in the crime or what led him to become entangled in gang violence. She was allowed to consider nothing beyond the worst moment of Matttis’s life. While Watt, 17 at the time of the crime, would be eligible for parole after 15 years, because Mattis was almost 10 months older and thus a legal adult, he automatically received a sentence of life without possibility of parole. 

Now, though, Mattis will attempt to convince a judge that he, too, should get a parole hearing one day. Recently a Massachusetts Superior Court overturned his sentence, ruling that people cannot be automatically sentenced to die in prison for crimes they committed before age 21. 

“ The U.S. has about 4% of the world’s population but imprisons more than one-third of people serving life sentences around the globe. ”

To Americans accustomed to the U.S.’s bloated prison system, these changes may seem radical. But, in fact, America’s cavalier willingness to sentence young people to die in prison is what’s truly radical. The U.S. has about 4% of the world’s population but, according to the most recent data, imprisons more than one-third of people serving life sentences around the globe. At least 150 countries have stopped giving life-without-parole sentences altogether and many countries already afford special sentencing protections to young adults as old as 25. 

Over the past few years, we’ve heard story after story of people given extreme sentences as youth who later got a second chance. Listen to enough of these stories, and you’ll start to hear echoes of the same themes. You’ll hear about kids who were abused or neglected, by adolescence had witnessed quantities of violence seen in warzones, started carrying weapons for protection, and eventually snapped. You’ll hear of people who experienced the kind of stress that physically changes the structure of the brain, blocking logical decision-making and sparking hypersensitivity to danger. And you’ll hear about how they grew and moved past this behavior. 

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