Are More Sentencing Restrictions for Juveniles Coming?

Less than a year and a half ago, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles (people under 18) cannot be sentenced to life in prison without parole when convicted of any crime other than murder, holding that all juvenile convicts must at least be given a reasonable chance to be paroled, even if this does not actually result in parole.

Now, the Supreme Court is going to hear another case, this time asking whether or not minors who commit homicide can be sentenced to life without parole.

This is another in a long string of cases where the Supreme Court has placed new restrictions on sentencing, particularly of juvenile criminals. The basic idea is that young people are probably most likely to be rehabilitated, so it doesn’t make sense to deny them an opportunity to do so.

In my last post on this subject, I mentioned that I don’t want to see life without parole completely eliminated as a sentencing option, but was somewhat on the fence about whether it should be available for juveniles who commit murder. Over the last few months, my views have changed: I think that life without parole should not be available for criminal defendants who were juveniles when they committed their crimes, even if the crime is murder.

Again, I should emphasize that this does not guarantee that a juvenile offender sentenced to life (with a chance at parole) will be guaranteed release. Parole boards would, and should, be free to exercise their discretion to deny parole, if they believe that the offender represents a continuing threat to society. It simply means that juvenile offenders must, eventually, be given an opportunity to show that they’ve been rehabilitated. I don’t know what the minimum time before this opportunity arises should be, but it should be a point in the future that the offender is reasonably likely to live to see, such as 15 or 20 years.

Of course, this means that there is a real chance that some people who commit murders as juveniles will eventually be released. Obviously, the decision to grant parole should not be made lightly, and it should only be granted when the defendant can show that they’ve been rehabilitated. If such a rule were adopted, perhaps it would spur our criminal justice system to stop paying lip service to the idea of rehabilitation, and actually change the focus of the system to genuine rehabilitation of criminals.

After all, if all juvenile criminals are given a shot at eventual release, we’d want to make sure that they’re unlikely to re-offend after release. While it’s true that some criminals, even juveniles, are beyond rehabilitation, and need to be locked away forever, it’s also true that we could do a much better job of rehabilitating criminals than we currently do.

For example, Norway recently took a lot of flack when the American public got a view of their “posh” prisons that look more like college dorms than prison cells. Many people were upset that the worst criminals in the country are given very comfortable and seemingly-luxurious accommodations.

However, Norway has a recidivism (re-offending) rate that’s far lower than that in the United States.

It’s also worth noting that Norway has completely done away with the sentence of life without parole, while still having a procedure for ensuring that prisoners who remain dangerous are not released.

Such a system, which largely disregards punishment as one of the objectives of criminal justice, seems counter-intuitive. However, if the Supreme Court rules that life without parole cannot be applied to any juvenile offender, we will have to start seriously considering what should be done with this fact.

Do we just continue to use the parole system we currently have, and hope for the best, or do we take it as an opportunity to create a criminal justice system that makes released offenders as unlikely to re-offend as possible?

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