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Opinion

'Elite' Supreme Court sides with science and juveniles

Justice Alito chided the Supreme Court majority for its 'elite vision' in striking down mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. But the court based its decision on science – the science of adolescent brain development. Science is a kind of elitism that we need more of.

By Jonathan Zimmerman / June 26, 2012

The Supreme Court on June 25 ruled that it is unconstitutional for state laws to require juveniles convicted of murder to be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. Op-ed contributor Jonathan Zimmerman writes of dissenting Justices Alito and Roberts: 'Both judges simply ignored the mounting scientific evidence that adolescents lack the same reasoning power and impulse control as adults. They didn’t say the science was ambiguous, or wrong; instead, they said it was irrelevant. And that’s worse.'

Evan Vucci/AP

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Did the Supreme Court embrace an “elite vision” on Monday when it struck down state laws mandating life imprisonment for juvenile murderers?

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That’s what Justice Samuel Alito said, in an angry dissent from the bench. By invalidating such laws, Mr. Alito fumed, the court’s 5-4 majority assumed that it knew better than the 28 state legislatures that have authorized mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for killers younger than 18.

But the court’s majority really does know better. And there’s a simple reason for that: It relied on science – in particular, the science of adolescent brain development.

Science seems to have taken quite a beating as of late. Consider this year’s GOP presidential sweepstakes, in which exactly one candidate – Jon Huntsman – was willing to acknowledge man-made climate change. The rest of the field insisted that the phenomenon still lacked sufficient scientific evidence.

But at least the candidates admitted that science matters. By disputing the science of climate change, indeed, they implicitly acknowledged that public policy should be based on accurate scientific research and knowledge.

Not so Justice Alito or Chief Justice John Roberts, who also dissented in the mandatory-sentencing decision. Both judges simply ignored the mounting scientific evidence that adolescents lack the same reasoning power and impulse control as adults. They didn’t say the science was ambiguous, or wrong; instead, they said it was irrelevant. And that’s worse.

After all, brain research was invoked in the court’s 2005 decision invalidating the death penalty for people under 18. The research also figured in its 2010 ruling striking down life sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder.

And since those cases, as the court’s majority noted on Monday, evidence about delayed adolescent brain development has become even stronger. “‘It is increasingly clear that adolescent brains are not yet fully mature in regions and systems related to higher-order executive functions such as impulse control, planning ahead, and risk avoidance,” the court wrote, quoting a brief by the American Psychological Association.

If that’s true, then it’s cruel for states – and the federal government – to mandate that every adolescent murderer gets jailed for life. Alas, it’s not unusual. More than 2,500 people are currently serving life without parole for murders they committed before they were 18. And about 2,100 of them were convicted in states where these sentences were mandatory.

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