Last year, a group of teens in Utah entered a home and held two people at gunpoint with the intent to commit robbery. The youngest of the boys, 16-year-old Cooper Van Huizen, provided his father’s guns to his cohorts but did not use them himself. In the end, the boys left with a cell phone, a bag of marijuana, and $10 cash. The victims were were terrified but physically unharmed.
Under a plea deals, two of the older boys, are serving 210 and 180 days in jail respectively after admitting guilt to second-degree felony counts. The two other teens are awaiting sentencing. In March, after his case was removed from juvenile and sent to adult court, Van Huizen took the same plea deal as the first two teens. The defence attorney told his parents they would petition to reduce the charges to misdemeanours after he completed his probation. They were also told it was very likely he would not have to serve any jail time as he was a first time offender.
On May 7, Van Huizen appeared before the same judge that sentenced his co-defendants. In a move that surprised the defence and prosecution, District Judge Ernie Jones deemed the plea deal illegal and “too soft” for his crimes. He sentenced the first time 16-year-old offender to two 1-15 years to Utah’s maximum security prison.
Unitah 1 is the highest security building in Utah’s state prison system. It houses 93 inmates, including gang members, sex offenders and those serving on death row. Inmates spend 23 hours a day in a solitary cell, with a single window allowing natural light. Reports from prisoners in Unitah 1 have included round the clock victimization, suicide attempts, rotten food and “every kind of psychological, social, and verbal dehumanization known to man.”
The inmates now include first time, nonviolent offender, 16-year-old Cooper Van Huizen.
Cooper’s father has said that this was his son’s first mistake, albeit a big one. Nevertheless, he feels that the sentence is too harsh and unfair. “He’s 16 years old,” said his father, Marc Van Huizen. “Some 16-years-olds are more mature than others, but Cooper is really soft and tender emotionally. He’s just a nice, sweet young boy, always has been. He’s not this rough-and-tough, wannabe street-wise little kid.”
In several decisions, the Supreme Court has maintained two key points regarding youth offenders: 1) teens and children are different than adults and 2) these differences must be considered during sentencing. In 2010, the court noted that, “As compared to adults, juveniles have a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility. They are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure and their characters are not as well formed.”
Yet kids as young as 12 are sentenced as adults regularly in the United States. The system is obviously broken when kids are sent to adult prisons, sometimes even without any charge yet the reoffending rate is more than three times as high as in countries like Norway where the legal system values rehabilitation over punishment.
Cooper admitted as much in a declaration to the court. “As I look back on what I did, I recognize that I was reckless in trying to fit in with and please new people I did not really know,” he said.
It is unclear why the judge imposed such a harsh and seemingly random sentence. In a declaration, his former attorney said that he recommended the plea deal believing there would be no prison time, though he realized there was always a chance. He also noted that the other defendants had received lighter sentences. Cooper’s parents have gotten him a new public defender, who has filed motions with the court to allow Cooper to withdraw his guilty plea.
While no one is saying that Cooper shouldn’t be punished for his participation, everyone seems to agree – including the department of Adult Probation and Parole – that sentencing a 16-year-old with no prior criminal record to spend up to 30 years in prison with sex offenders and murderers is cruel and unusual punishment.
Cooper has now spent more than two weeks in Unitah 1. He showers once a week and has learned to keep his window flap closed so he can’t hear the cries of the mentally ill inmates. He is one of 18 juveniles who have served time there since 2009. He hasn’t seen his parents since being taken to prison. There has been no hearing scheduled yet on his motions to the court.