Today the Supreme Court decided that states can no longer sentence children convicted of murder to life without the possibility of parole:
The Supreme Court ruled Monday that two men convicted of killings committed when they were 14 cannot be sentenced to life in prison without at least the possibility of parole.
The 5-4 ruling is a victory for defenders of juvenile offenders, affirming recent high court rulings against harsh criminal sentences.
Justice Elena Kagan said it would be wrong for states to ignore the chance that these now-adult inmates may someday be rehabilitated.
“The mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment,” Kagan said.
This ruling was a long time coming. The United States is one of the few countries in the world that imprisons children for decades. Until 2005, the U.S. was also one of the few countries to execute children. For a nation that views itself as the moral compass of the world, it is ironic that we have so little problem punishing children in the harshest ways.
We not only executed children and left others to die in prison, but we also place them in adult prisons with full knowledge that adult inmates will prey on them. We seem to be gluttons for cruelty even as we claim to want to rehabilitate kids.
Of course, the decision was not without its dissent:
“[Attorney Bryan Stevenson] would say that a person of 17 years and 11 months who commits the worst possible string of offenses — and demonstrates great maturity — still cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole?” asked Alito during oral arguments in March.
He wrote the tough dissenting opinion, supported by Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
“When the majority of this court countermands that democratic decision (by state legislatures), what the majority is saying is that members of society must be exposed to the risk that these convicted murders, if released from custody, will murder again,” said Alito, who delivered his dissent from the bench, a rare privilege typically granted in only the most contentious of cases.
What the dissenting justices fail to realize is that few of these children will be released immediately after being sentenced. While one can argument that it is equally cruel and unusual to sentence children to decades in prison, often times to sentences longer than they have been alive, those long sentences ensure that the kids have time to be rehabilitated. Indeed, the original reason for prison was rehabilitation, and it seems odd that people would preemptively declare someone incapable of changing.
Perhaps the greater irony of these kinds of policies and laws is that we apply them so selectively. For example, if my 12-year-old godson killed someone, he could be charged as an adult. The argument behind that charge is that he is old enough to understand what he did and therefore can take responsibility for his actions. However, if my godson decided to have sex with someone older than him, the same laws deem him incapable of consenting to sex because at 12-years-old he lacks the maturity and understanding to take responsibility for his actions. The same thing applies to drinking, getting tattoos, leaving a hospital, and signing contracts.
In other words, my godson is an “adult” when it is convenient for the state, i.e. when they want to punish him.
That is really what these harsh laws are about. We are all fully aware that a 14-year-old is not an adult, does not think or reason like an adult, and changes as they get older. We simply want to punish children as harshly as possible, usually to make an example out of them to stave off other child criminals. As a result, our prison system has gone from rehabilitation to punishment to such an extent that a child convicted of a crime in many instances will serve more time than an adult would.
That is why the court’s ruling was a long time coming, and it only one of many more that need to happen. We need to stop placing children in the same prisons as adults. We need to stop charging child as adults just so we can punish them more. We need to change our juvenile prisons from rehabilitation centers in name only to places that actually try to keep kids out of prison.
This ruling will force many states to look at the 2,500 children sentenced to life without parole and start asking whether that was the right decision. Hopefully this will prompt some states to rethink how they treat juveniles.
At the very least, it will frustrate the hell out of Florida and Texas, the two states most inclined to imprison and execute (when they could) minors. Now they will actually have to deal with the children on a real level instead of chucking the book at them.