This May, the Supreme Court in Graham v. Florida wrestled with the idea of sentencing juveniles who commit crimes short of murder, to life without parole. They ultimately decided that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th amendment, and is therefore unconstitutional. This ruling is not the first in this subject area either. Back in 2005, the Supreme Court held that capital punishment for juveniles is unconstitutional.
Thus, these rulings reflect a trend in the Supreme Court of being increasingly lenient towards the punishment of juvenile criminals. It also leaves us hanging with the next logical question, which is: what about juveniles who commit murder? Should a sentence of life without parole for these juveniles be unconstitutional as well?
This question is particularly relevant, as there are around 2,500 inmates currently serving sentences of life without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles, and who are not affected by this recent ruling. This is in contrast to the 150 inmates who are automatically eligible for lighter sentences based on the Supreme Court’s recent ruling.
Personally, I see arguments on both sides of the equation. On one hand, these are members of society who committed the most heinous crime possible—murder—and they should be put away for good. On the other hand, they’re just adolescents, still growing and learning the ways of the world, and we should be more lenient with them.
To answer this question, let’s look at three reasons we punish people in criminal law. Basically, we punish criminals for deterrence purposes, for the sake of justice, and to prevent them from harming others by removing them from society.
In terms of deterrence, I don’t think that whichever way the law goes in this respect is going to have much effect on juvenile offenders. I’m no expert on how the juvenile criminal mind works, but I feel pretty sure that the threat of having no parole, versus the possibility of having parole, is not going to change their minds with respect to whether they commit the crime or not. I mean, at the point someone decides to murder, I don’t really think the differences in sentencing consequences like this is going to have any impact on their decision.
As for the idea of justice, well, that’s an emotionally charged and stirring topic that is difficult to get into. Suffice to say, I do think that justice has its place in criminal law. But it’s so subjective as to what constitutes justice for any crime committed. I think that this subject is better dealt with on a case to case basis. At any rate, I don’t really think it’s my place to sit here and argue about at what point I think justice has been served for a juvenile who commits murder.
That leaves us with the idea of punishing criminals in order to move them out of harm’s way and protect society. This line of thought is the most compelling to me. Yes, I agree with all the supporters of a constitutional ban that adolescents are still developing, and we should give them a chance to reform.
On the other hand, I think we have a great responsibility to society to ensure that if we do let juveniles like these out of prison, they don’t commit the same atrocious crimes again. And for some juveniles who have committed truly heinous crimes, I just don’t see how any amount of rehabilitation can guarantee us a completely changed person who won’t get involved in criminal behavior again.
I’m talking about the Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s here. Yes, they were adolescents when they committed crimes, but at the same time, they were still old enough to know right from wrong. There’s a lot of evil and malice they are responsible for, and how can we ever feel secure that all that evil is gone, no matter how much rehabilitation they’ve gone through?
Thus, I don’t think we should necessarily put a ban on life without parole for juveniles who commit murder. At the same time, I think this is a sentence that should be used very sparingly, for the crimes that demonstrate a truly malicious and unchangeable heart.
Before issuing a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile, I would look at their potential for reform. I would look at factors such as the terribleness of the crime committed, their past criminal history, family history and upbringing. Were they put in an environment where they were doomed to failure? Or did they constantly burn through all the chances for success they were given?
On a separate but somewhat related note, this brings us the next idea of rehabilitation. I believe that rehabilitation and preventative measures are techniques that are under-utilized in society, and particularly for juvenile offenders. Yes, rehabilitation is very pricey, but the rewards for it are unlimited. Imagine all the good that a changed juvenile offender can do for the world, versus cleaning up the costs of his/her crimes. There’s virtually no ceiling we can put on how much good can come out of rehabilitation and preventative techniques.
On a practical note though, I’m not sure how rehabilitation would look like for these juvenile offenders. A juvenile who commits murder will probably have to go to jail for some amount of time. I don’t think society is ready to declare that unconstitutional. But at the same time, I really don’t think jail is the best place for rehabilitation either.
In conclusion, I believe I’ve rambled on now for long enough about my views. This is a very controversial topic, and I’m sure many others have strong opinions too. By no means do I think my views on this topic are the only legitimate ones. Feel free to leave any thoughts or alternative viewpoints below. Perhaps one of the best things we can do to improve this situation is to simply talk about it.