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Supreme Court ruling on life sentences for young criminals

The Supreme Court ruling against mandating life-without-parole sentences for young criminals assumes that children are more capable of reform than adults. This premise is based on shaky views of character development.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / June 26, 2012

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that it is unconstitutional for state laws to require juveniles convicted of murder to be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

Evan Vucci/AP Photo

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Is a child more capable of character reform than an adult?

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In a string of rulings since 2005, the Supreme Court has accepted this popular perception in lessening harsh sentences for juveniles who commit crimes.

In its latest decision issued Monday, the court banned mandatory life sentences with no chance of parole for minors who commit murder. The ruling still allows such sentences. But judges and juries must first assess a minor’s capacity for reform. Only a small percentage of adolescents develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior, the court stated.

The decision follows previous ones that ended the death penalty for juveniles who kill and also life-without-parole sentences for juveniles whose crimes do not include murder.

This latest ruling again notes that youths are more open to the possibility of rehabilitation and thus should not receive harsh prison time. The justices point to the latest research on the adolescent brain, which finds that a youth’s tendency for rashness or risk taking is just a function of age.

These traits, the court finds, make teens less morally culpable for their actions. “As the years go by and neurological development occurs, his deficiencies will be reformed,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan for the majority.

The court insists that these new theories about a child’s emotional and moral states reflect “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

This materialist view of character development certainly helps support the high court’s decision. And youths indeed must be treated differently, if only because they are usually capable of embracing such qualities as honesty and compassion.

But this view is limited. It relies too simply on the latest interpretations of brain science, which can create a sharp line of age in judging a person’s willingness to change.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in writing a dissent to the decision, spotted this problem, essentially chiding the majority for not regarding those over 16 or 18 years old as also capable of rehabilitation.

“The principle behind today’s decision seems to be only that because juveniles are different from adults, they must be sentenced differently,” he stated. “There is no clear reason that principle would not bar all mandatory sentences for juveniles, or any juvenile sentence as harsh as what a similarly situated adult would receive.”

The chief justice had other reasons for his dissent, but he questions the ability of the justices to know if youths are more open to change.

“Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers, giving them greater chance to reform themselves at the risk that they will kill again,” Justice Roberts said. “But that is not our decision to make.”

He also noted the shifting standards of society toward crime, which argues for caution in accepting a brain-based view of children.

“For most of the 20th century, American sentencing practices emphasized rehabilitation of the offender and the availability of parole. But by the 1980’s, outcry against repeat offenders, broad disaffection with the rehabilitative model, and other factors led many legislatures to reduce or eliminate the possibility of parole, imposing longer sentences in order to punish criminals and prevent them from committing more crimes.”

Courts must be cautious in accepting current interpretations, even if their final judgments make sense, as this latest ruling does. Judges must simply apply the law, not make it. And the Supreme Court would be hard pressed to overturn its previous rulings if new theories force it to change.

All people, not just children, should be given the hope that they can change their ways. That is the mark of a maturing society.

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