The Criminal Legal System Punishes Youth for Not Thinking Like Adults

I have spent the last 27 years in confinement for crimes that I committed when I was 14 years old. Since I was imprisoned and sentenced to life without parole, there has been a paradigm shift with respect to how juveniles should be handled by the criminal legal system.

The shift has changed my life: On October 28, 2019, I am set to be freed because my youth at the time I committed my crimes became part of the calculus for evaluating my culpability.

While I am grateful to finally have an opportunity to meaningfully contribute to society, I cannot ignore the fate of prisoners surrounding me who will never have their cases reconsidered because they were a few years older than me: Prisoners who are being denied relief because policymakers refuse to retroactively apply new social science and research to those who were barely over the age of 18 when they committed their criminal misdeeds. But how did these prisoners end up in this predicament? Criminal laws easily lead to unjust sentences when a teenager’s actions are viewed through the prism of how a reasonable adult would react in similar circumstances. One case in particular, though, provides all the necessary ingredients for understanding just how unjust sentences are given to those who are barely old enough to vote.

Extreme Indifference — to Youthfulness

Legal commentators Elizabeth S. Scott and Laurence Steinberg have observed, with respect to crime and punishment, that “Only a blameworthy moral agent deserves punishment at all, and blameworthiness (and the amount of punishment deserved) can vary depending on the attributes of the actor or the circumstances of the offense.”

This observation is apt when considering homicides that are said to have been committed in a manner that demonstrates the perpetrator was exceedingly reckless.

In Washington State, which is exceptional in its severity for punishing such homicides, a person can be convicted of first-degree murder if the defendant’s conduct created “a grave risk of death to any person,” and the conduct occurred under “circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to human life.”

This second element becomes problematic when the perpetrator is a teenager.

Unlike their fully maturated adult counterparts, “recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking” are teenage developmental characteristics, as are an impaired ability to “assess consequences” when making decisions — especially in the heat of the moment — and an “underdeveloped sense of responsibility.”

In light of this developmental reality, to maintain that a teenager’s careless and reckless act that causes someone’s death manifested an extreme indifference to human life can require cognitive dissonance, for the prosecutor and jury must ignore “his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”

In the context of a homicide committed with extreme indifference to human life, where recklessness and carelessness are the elements, teenagers can easily suffer injustices when charged with this offense, given that there are “fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.”

Noel Caldellis suffered this fate shortly after he graduated from high school. Over the last decade, I have watched him grow from a naive teenager — struggling to come to terms with the fact that he took the life of another teen — into a middle-aged, college educated mentor in the University Beyond Bars program at Washington State Reformatory.

A review of his court records reveals how “extreme indifference” homicides often manifest from a teenager’s immaturity rather than a callous disregard for human life, and thereby result in inequitable sentences.

Three Shots and You’re Out

On September 2, 2006, 18-year-old Caldellis attended a friend’s party in Lake City, Washington. The friend, Jason, a 17-year-old of Filipino descent, was feuding with another teen who was at a different party on the other side of town.

Jason wanted to head over there to fight him. So, around midnight, Caldellis (who is white) and their Asian friends decided to drive in a caravan to the other party, made up of mostly white kids, so Jason could brawl with his young white nemesis.

While stopped at a mini-mart, two members of Caldellis’s group got into a heated argument and one pulled out a gun on the other. Fortunately, Caldellis interceded, snatched the gun away from the teen who was brandishing the weapon, then put it into his waistband before getting back on the road.

Ten minutes later, the intoxicated caravan of teenagers pulled up outside the other party, and Jason began walking to the entrance. But before he got there, 20 to 30 people burst out of the door yelling racial slurs. Several fights then broke out between members of both groups.

The Washington Supreme Court would later describe the scene as “pandemonium.”

Caldellis watched the melee from the sidelines, but when someone ran up as if to attack him, Caldellis fended him off by punching him in the face. According to witnesses, Caldellis then pulled a gun from his waistband and fired two shots into the air and several horizontally.

Tragically, a teenager near the driveway of the home was struck, and he later died from his wounds.

At trial, the jury was instructed that Caldellis was guilty of first-degree murder if his extreme indifference to human life, as evidenced by firing the gun toward people, amounted to “aggravated recklessness which creates a very high degree of risk greater than that involved in recklessness.”

In other words, recklessly reckless was the subjective standard for determining his guilt or innocence.

The jury found that his conduct did indeed amount to aggravated recklessness. He was subsequently sentenced to the requisite mandatory sentence of 34 years of confinement notwithstanding his lack of a criminal record.

The Mind of the Teenage Shooter

Russ Hauge, chairman of Washington State’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission, said that the research findings regarding how the teenage brain affects decision-making is “unquestioned,” and that even in cases of older teenagers who are legally adults, judges should be given guided discretion to consider “indicia of his or her brain function … as a mitigating factor.”

But this case is about the offense charged in the first instance, given the range of alternatives, not whether youth should constitute a mitigating factor at sentencing.

Caldellis had to be judged not just by his conduct, but his state of mind at the time of the crime because in order to act with extreme indifference to human life, the jury had to find that he “knew of and disregarded the grave risk of death.”

This knowing disregard is the requisite mental element for this offense, and leads back to developmental psychology and neuroscience when the offender is a teenager like Caldellis.
More than two decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made plain that “a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility are found in youth more often than in adults and are more understandable among the young. These qualities often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions,” and the “qualities that distinguish juveniles from adults do not disappear when an individual turns 18.”

When Caldellis’s crime is viewed from this perspective, it begs the question of whether he was simply reckless and committed the less serious crime of manslaughter in the first degree.

According to court records, “Caldellis told the police he did not intentionally shoot the victim. Caldellis said he initially fired two shots into the air. When that tactic did not succeed in forcing [the attacking mob] to retreat, Caldellis fired into the crowd, not aiming at anyone in particular.”

Prosecutors should expect that an adult can readily perceive that firing shots into a crowd, even without aiming at anyone in particular, will create a grave risk of death to another person. Indeed, the prosecutor argued that Caldellis’s actions were on the high end of the “spectrum of stupidity.” Yet Caldellis was not a fully maturated adult, and in “situations where adults will likely perceive and weigh multiple alternatives as part of rational decision-making” processes, teenagers typically have an “inflexible ‘either-or-mentality,’” especially under stressful conditions.

Ultimately, Caldellis’s reckless actions and the brawling outside of the party illustrate that when it comes to teenage decision-making, “emotions, excitement, or stress contribute to riskier decisions by youths than by adults.”

The fact that first-degree murder can be charged against youths whose psycho-social development hotwires them to be exceedingly reckless when pressed means that teenagers like Caldellis can continue to be sentenced to more than a quarter-century of confinement in the Washington State Department of Corrections for actions that evidence their youth rather than an extreme indifference to the lives of others.

This is what happens in the criminal punishment system when the crime does not fit the offender.