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Supreme Court Throws Out Life Without Parole for Juveniles

I blogged before about how the Supreme Court, for the last decade or so, has been on a noted trend of limiting the imposition of the most severe criminal sentences, under the 8th Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment.” In the early 2000s, there came a series of decisions holding that people who were under the age of 18 at the time they committed their crimes cannot be sentenced to death. Around the same time, they ruled that the mentally-disabled are also ineligible for the death penalty.

A few years later, they ruled that the death penalty cannot be imposed for any crime other than murder (overturning the death sentence of a man who had been convicted of raping a child).

Most recently, the Court has held that minors cannot be sentenced to life without parole for any crime other than murder. When that ruling came out, I, along with many other legal wonks, speculated that it was only a matter of time before the Court took up the issue of whether or not that same restriction should also apply to juveniles convicted of murder.

Well, the Supreme Court has just ruled that it does. They overturned the sentence of life without parole of a juvenile who had been convicted of murder, on the grounds that such a sentence constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” under the meaning of the 8th Amendment to the Constitution.

Actually, to be more precise, the court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional. However, making that sentence an option, which a judge can choose to impose at his or her discretion, appears to still be allowed, for now.

Like the past decisions I mentioned above, I think that this one is a step in the right direction, and I also think that the horrible scenarios trotted out by “tough-on-crime” pundits are largely distractions. First of all, this ruling does not guarantee that everyone sentenced as a minor will eventually be released. The court simply held that all juvenile convicts must be given a meaningful opportunity for parole. It did not dictate that every application for parole has to be granted. This seems like a good balance to strike. Some people do truly reform themselves in prison, through a wide variety of avenues. Some prisoners find religion, others use their time (something prisoners generally have plenty of) to earn their GED, or learn a trade. And others (especially prisoners convicted when they were minors) simply mature over the years, and come to understand the error of their ways.

In many cases, these rehabilitation success stories end up mattering very little, because the inmates are ineligible for parole, and are almost certainly destined to languish in prison for the rest of their lives.

On the other hand, if these people were eligible for parole, it’s possible that they’d eventually be released, and would have the potential to become productive members of society, instead of living the rest of their lives in prison, at taxpayer expense.

And if prisons really focused on rehabilitation, rather than punishment, I believe that a far larger number of convicts could be released, with little risk of recidivism. This is especially true of younger inmates, who still have a good deal of development and maturing ahead of them. In the proper environment, I don’t doubt that a large number of them could be rehabilitated.

And I think that this ruling provides officials with a strong incentive to reform prisons with an eye towards rehabilitation. After all, if prison officials know that everyone who is convicted of a crime as a minor will have a real chance at eventually being released, they will have a strong incentive to invest in programs designed to decrease the chances of them re-offending.

And it’s important to note that this decision, and the decisions restricting the imposition of life without parole sentences that came before it, does not mean that every juvenile convicted of a heinous crime has to be released eventually. The decisions recognize (as would any civilized but pragmatic legal system) that rehabilitation, while a worthy goal, simply isn’t always possible. There are some people who are simply bad to the core, and need to be kept out of society forever. To that end, these decisions make it clear that juveniles convicted of serious crimes need to be given a real opportunity to apply for parole. They do not say that every parole application needs to be granted.

This means that all juvenile offenders will have a chance to prove to a parole board that they’ve been rehabilitated. However, parole boards will still be able to deny the parole application of anybody who they believe represents a continuing threat to society.

To me, this seems like a perfect balance between the interests of giving young offenders a second chance, and ensuring that the authorities still have the flexibility to keep the worst of the worst offenders locked up.

Ken LaMance

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