The sentencing of an Omaha, Neb., teen to decades in prison for murder raises once again the need for rehabilitation options for young people that don’t harden them in prison.
In February 2018, Tyon Wells and a friend tried to buy marijuana from two 17-year-olds. Wells, who had turned 14 less than two months earlier, brandished a gun and shot the older boys, one of whom, Zachary Parker, died from his wounds. Prosecutors charged Wells with second-degree murder. At 13, he would have been tried in juvenile court automatically, but Douglas County District Judge Shelly Stratman overrode his defense attorney’s request and sent Wells’ case to adult court. She cited his connection with gangs, violence at school, and familiarity with weapons as reasons. Wells took a plea deal and in January was sentenced to 22 to 48 years in prison.
“Zachary doesn’t have a second chance, but you do,” Stratman told him. “You have the opportunity to take those steps so this isn’t the only thing people remember you for.” According to state law, Wells could be eligible for parole in 11 years. He is currently incarcerated at the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility in Omaha.
Around the time of Wells’ sentence, a 12-year-old boy in Texas was charged with capital murder. The prosecutor pushed for 40 years in prison. Houston lawyer Mandy Moore told me at the time that the Supreme Court has made it clear the justice system must treat juveniles differently than adults.
“Depending on the crime and the prior background, a long sentence, coupled with some sort of supervised release is conceivable,” she said. “But all of this depends heavily on the facts of the case and the child’s background.”
Eric Kelly, national juvenile justice ministry director for Youth for Christ, agrees. He said juvenile justice requires looking at the young people’s situation in life as well as their actions. “When basic long-term needs are not being met—food, shelter, safety, nurturing, etc.—young people will begin to think only short-term.” He said Wells was most likely operating in “survival mode” when he shot Parker and the other boy. Shortly after his arrest, Wells’ family posted a video on social media in which they said Tyon Wells was raised without a father, surrounded by gangs, drugs, and violence.
“But he has always had the support of his family, who worked tirelessly to steer him away from the lure of illegal activity,” family member Sherman Wells said in the video.
Kelly said Christians “need to advocate for a proportional response that balances society’s need for accountability with restoration, forgiveness, and most of all, genuine understanding.” He added that the justice system must change from a punitive approach to a restorative one. That means identifying the risk factors such as family situation and poverty and making a plan to address those, including after the young person is released from incarceration.