Life in Prison for Juveniles: Too Harsh, or Just Punishment?

The Supreme Court will decide whether life imprisonment without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional

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Does sentencing a juvenile offender to life in prison violate the Constitution's prohibition on "cruel and unusual punishment"? The Supreme Court is set to consider that question. The court will hear two cases of juvenile offenders who committed non-homicidal offenses and were sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Supporters of the sentences note that both convicts, while juvenile, were repeat offenders, and that one brutally raped a senior citizen, though only 13 at the time. Yet the attorneys are drawing on the Supreme Court's 2005 ruling overturning juvenile death sentences to argue that life sentences, too, should be unconstitutional.

  • Children Are Different, declare the Los Angeles Times editors, echoing the arguments used to rule the juvenile death penalty unconstitutional in 2005:
[Y]ouths lack the sense of responsibility that society requires of adults. Their personalities are not yet fixed; they are more susceptible to the negative influences of other people or events. Society's understandable demand for retribution is necessarily blunted when the perpetrator of a crime is a juvenile. Likewise, the threat of a stiff penalty cannot have the same deterrent effect on a youth as it does on an adult; young people have too little experience to fully grasp the consequences of their actions.
  • Actually, Each Child Is Different "Most juvenile offenders," emphasize the Heritage Foundation's Charles Stimson and Andrew Grossman, "should not and do not have their cases adjudicated in the adult criminal justice system ... But some crimes evince characteristics that push them beyond the leniency otherwise afforded to juveniles: cruelty, wantonness, a complete disregard for the lives of others." That makes the case different. When these offenders are tried as adults, "a small proportion ... are sentenced to life without parole." That, they argue, is as it should be.
  • This Is Going to Be a Mess Slate's Dahlia Lithwick, writes, looking at the precedent set up by the ban on juvenile execution, that "[t]he question for the court this time around is not just whether teens are really different from adults but whether being sentenced to die in prison is truly all that different from being sentenced to die there by lethal injection." Furthermore, the line for "cruel and unusual" involves, according to judicial precedent, determining whether a sentence is "gradual and proportional," and whether it departs from "national consensus." That's extremely vague. Furthermore, Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in the juvenile death penalty case involved "references to foreign law," which "some of his colleagues see ... as worse than citation to Bazooka Joe comics." That's not all:
There's one other mystery at the heart of the Sullivan and Graham cases that makes predicting their outcomes next to impossible ... Kennedy wrote, most enigmatically, that "when a juvenile commits a heinous crime, the state can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the state cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity." Looking at ... children sentenced to die in prison for acts they committed as teens, one has to wonder whether life without parole meets Kennedy's standard for what a state may reasonably do to a child. These complex cases may thus turn on whether Kennedy believes a teenager can possibly attain a "mature understanding of his own humanity" in a prison cell to which his jailers have thrown away the key.
  • High Stakes Political science professor Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns and Money points out that one of the cases up for review involves a 13-year-old convicted "on pretty flimsy evidence." That means that either "Anthony Kennedy's sporadic conscience will be shocked" or, "if the Court upholds the convictions it would essentially send the message that states have almost unlimited authority to give draconian sentences to juveniles as long as they're not actually sentenced to death."
  • Juveniles Can Be Beyond Recovery New York Times Room for Debate participant Kent Scheidegger points out some interesting facets of "[p]sychological studies cited by Graham and Sullivan's supporters show[ing] that many delinquent teenagers will desist and be law-abiding adults." As it turns out, "the same studies show that there is a hard core of life-course persistent offenders that is unlikely to desist. This group typically begins offending earlier, commits more violent offenses, and remains violent into adulthood." Scheidegger's conclusion? "Our society can and should defend itself against them."
  • That's Not the Point, responds Scheidegger's Room for Debate opponent Marc Mauer. It's not that dangerous youths should unconditionally be let loose on society. Instead, "[t]he question before the Supreme Court is whether a parole review should be conducted at some point to distinguish between those youth who have demonstrated maturity and reform and those who still present a risk to public safety." Mauer doesn't want juveniles deprived of the possibility of that review.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.