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UPDATE: Why Is a First Time Nonviolent Teen Offender in a Death Row Prison?

UPDATE: Why Is a First Time Nonviolent Teen Offender in a Death Row Prison?

Update: June 3, 2014

Since this story was first published on May 30, I have confirmed with the Utah Department of Corrections that Cooper has been moved from Unitah 1 to a county jail. Due to privacy concerns, they could not specify the details of his detainment, though it should be easier for him to have visitation from his family. On May 27, the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole granted a request by Cooper’s attorney to allow him to undergo a psychological evaluation. That evaluation, which may be conducted over several visits, was ordered to begin no later than Friday, June 6.

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In November of last year, a group of teen boys 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 according to court records. In the end, the five boys left with a cellphone, a bag of marijuana, and $10 cash. The terrified victims were physically unharmed.

Under a plea deals, two of the boys, now 17 and 19 years old, 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 17-year-old. The defense attorney told his parents they would petition to reduce the charges to misdemeanors 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 defense 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.”

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.

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341 comments

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6:29AM PST on Dec 8, 2014

Let the punishment FIT the crime! This sentence is way too overboard!!!

4:58AM PDT on Aug 27, 2014

Cooper Van Huizen knew he was doing something wrong! Yes, I do think the sentence is too harsh, but he does need to be punished with jail time!!

5:41AM PDT on Aug 3, 2014

Such an extreme difference between sentences has to be an injustice.

7:18PM PDT on Jul 9, 2014

thanks

3:01PM PDT on Jun 16, 2014

The sentence is to harsh. The fact that you can rape a person and not always get a jail sentence; but this boy gets that harsh sentence, shows we still have a long ways to go in our criminal system.

8:08PM PDT on Jun 7, 2014

@ruhee B. this is the court systems not the christ systems ok? so keep your bible to yourself. you people want to condemn people for being gay yet youll free someone who could have killed a person. genius.. pure freaking genius.

8:04PM PDT on Jun 7, 2014

im sorry to say but he got himself in a stupid situation. hopefully this will be a lesson learned. the other boys who held the guns should have all had the same punishment. i do not think any of them should have had any different punishment unless one shot someone then id say put them in for life. but they all did the same thing. either way, dont do stupid crap and then complain when you get in trouble.

6:48PM PDT on Jun 7, 2014

While its unfortunate this 16 yr old wound up in this situation, I do think we ALL should be held accountable for our decisions. Its sooo very important to THINK b4 acting. Like my granny used to say "If u have to wonder about whether to do an illegal act, then its not worth a dime! Run as far away from it as u can!"

12:13AM PDT on Jun 7, 2014

Firstly - I believe yes - that sentence IS too harsh, but I think at age 16 they should be tried as an adult - they are fully aware of what is right or wrong (hell my son knew by the time he was 5!), and do need to suffer adult consequences. I am a victim of a home invasion - sure I 'survived' but the long term issues from this have affected the last 10 years of my life hugely.

7:09PM PDT on Jun 6, 2014

continuation; they condemn instead of forgive.

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