The Supreme Court rules that life without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional

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.

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12 thoughts on “The Supreme Court rules that life without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional

  1. LWOP for Juvies has long been viewed as being wrong, why did it take them this long to finally understand this?

  2. 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.

    Actually it’s gone from punishment to rehabilitation, back to punishment again, and now is evolving into a commercial opportunity for big business, corrupt law enforcement and corrupt judges.

    Pa. judge gets 28 years in ‘kids for cash’ case

  3. I believe it is important to remember that the juvenile justice system is punishment WITH rehabilitation, at least according to the laws in the USA.

  4. LWOP for Juvies has long been viewed as being wrong, why did it take them this long to finally understand this?

    Politics and money. Many people like the harsh on crime approach, especially when it comes to kids. It works in a judge’s favor to sentence a 12-year-old to life without parole, particularly the judge is an elected official. Likewise, prisons have been a billion business. The more people you have in them and the longer they are there, the more money the state and private institutions running the prisons make.

  5. “In other words, my godson is an “adult” when it is convenient for the state, i.e. when they want to punish him.”

    This is not necessarily the reasoning behind the contradiction in treatment of juveniles. I agree that juveniles should not be executed or receive life without parole. In fact I think we treat them harshly in other ways as well. But the reasoning isn’t one of convenience.

    Juveniles are prohibited from consenting to sex and signing contracts in order to protect them from predators (sexual and otherwise). They are prohibited from drinking, getting tatoos, and leaving hospitals to protect them from themselves because they make poor decisions due to immaturity. Once they committed a crime, the goal is to protect the public from the juvenile. Public safety is the primary issue, not the maturity level of the juvenile. This is the way it should be. We should protect our children from adults, from each other, and from themselves up to the point where we need to be protected from them. I like the Supreme Court decision because it still allows for public safety while offering better protection for the child.

  6. Juveniles are prohibited from consenting to sex and signing contracts in order to protect them from predators (sexual and otherwise). They are prohibited from drinking, getting tatoos, and leaving hospitals to protect them from themselves because they make poor decisions due to immaturity. Once they committed a crime, the goal is to protect the public from the juvenile. Public safety is the primary issue, not the maturity level of the juvenile.

    I am not talking about imprisoning kids for a few years. I am talking about charging children as adults and sentencing them to decades behind bars. The argument lawmakers, prosecutors, and judges use to justify charging children as adults is that their crimes are so heinous that they deserve harsher sentences and that the children are capable of understanding and taking responsibility for their actions. Yet as you noted above, these same lawmakers, prosecutors, and judges do not think those same children have the maturity or sense to protect themselves from predators, drink, leave hospitals, or even vote.

    The state is clearly trying to have it both ways, and that has nothing to do with protecting anyone. It is just about punishing the children as harshly as possible.

  7. The decision DID NOT end the possibility of Life Without Parole for juveniles – it merely stated it was unconstitutional for a state to make such a sentence mandatory for a given crime involving juveniles. In other words, juveniles got the protection of having their punishment be based on a case -by -case basis.

    I can’t say I’m not happy with that, because it would be a lie. I AM happy with that. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that teens not be assumed to not understand its wrong to murder, maim, or commit a forcible sex offense. A 17 year old psychopath?
    Keep him or her behind bars, forever if necessary.

    Yes, we should cut kids more slack than we do adults – though I’d say the system as a whole could use a bit more slack. And the younger the kid the more slack. We all draw our lines somewhere, I do try to keep mine consistent with both my sexual philosophies and what I know of biology.

  8. I am just glad for the determination to not lock up kids for life without parole. Kids need, imo, the possibility of parole.

  9. The decision DID NOT end the possibility of Life Without Parole for juveniles – it merely stated it was unconstitutional for a state to make such a sentence mandatory for a given crime involving juveniles.

    No, the decision does indeed make such laws void. Any children sentenced to life without parole will now have their cases reviewed to see when they will be eligible for parole. That does not mean, however, that the states cannot impose a harsh parole limitation, such as deciding that a child will not be eligible until 50 years into their sentence.

  10. Sorry TS, but either you misunderstood my post, or you are a fooled by the reporting and misunderstand the law.
    Quoting:
    “Yesterday’s 5-to-4 decision will help around 80 percent of those juveniles, but by help, I do not mean to suggest the juveniles will not in fact die in prison. They very well might.

    Why? Because the court in Miller and Jackson did not rule that LWOP is necessarily unconstitutional when applied to someone who commits a crime prior to age 18. It merely held that any state law imposing mandatory LWOP for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. So, for instance, it would still be OK for a jury to sentence Jackson or Miller, or any 14-year-old, to life in prison without the possibility of parole, as long as the jury has the option not to issue that sentence. You have to have awfully low standards to think this decision marks much by way of progress when it comes to criminal punishment. ”

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/06/25/don-t-believe-the-hype-supreme-court-decision-on-juvenile-life-without-parole-is-weak.html

  11. I see. That was my misunderstanding. That really is not much of a change. However, I will wait to see what happens when the laws get challenged. We may find that the law applies in more cases than people initially think.

  12. Pingback: Saturday Link Encyclopedia and Self-Promotion « Clarissa's Blog

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