On May 17, 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for juvenile offenders who haven’t committed homicide to be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
This is very good news for children in our country.
The 5-4 decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, recognized that such sentences violate the 8th amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, but Michigan has to take the next step and appoint a special parole board to reevaluate the cases of juveniles who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. If we’ve learned anything from this decision, it is that at the very least, children deserve a second chance.
The Supreme Court decision goes a long way toward aligning legal opinion in the United States with the rest of the world. The Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly prohibits life without parole for juveniles under eighteen. The Convention has been signed and ratified by every country with the exception of the United States and Somalia.
But in my opinion, it doesn’t go far enough.
Justice Kennedy acknowledges specifically, in writing the opinion, that as compared to adults, juveniles have a “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility” and their characters are “not as well formed.”
He writes that while a juvenile is not absolved of responsibility of his actions, his transgressions are “not as morally reprehensible as those of an adult.”
And he goes on to point out that as a punishment, life without parole “the second most severe penalty permitted by law,” is especially harsh for a juvenile offender, who will on average serve more years and a greater percentage of his life in prison than an adult offender.
Kennedy seems to be arguing that juveniles must be considered differently than adults. Following his line of this reasoning, juvenile life without parole should be unconstitutional on the face of it, even for homicide.
Responding sarcastically to Justice Thomas’s dissent in the case, and addressing in general the injustice of harsh sentencing for youthful offenders and evolving standards, Justice Kennedy had this to say:
“While JUSTICE THOMAS would apparently not rule out a death sentence for a $50 theft by a 7-year-old…the Court wisely rejects his static approach to the law. Standards of decency have evolved … They will never stop doing so."
Support for this decision has come from across the country. Perusing the New York Times and you’ll read countless letters of support.
The lead author of a report entitled From Time out to Hard Time: Young Children in the Adult Criminal Justice System, said that the decision was a welcome recognition of the need to treat juvenile offenders differently from adult criminals when it comes to sentencing.
A psychiatrist wrote “has acknowledged what all parents know: adolescents are not just little adults.”
And, while applauding the Court’s decision, U.S. Program Human Rights Watch Director Allison Parker pointed out “no other country imposes juvenile life without parole for any crime, including homicide.” She said that the United States remains an egregious outlier.
By Katie Jacob
Katie is a journalism student at Oakland University and will intern with the ACLU of Michigan throughout the summer.