One measure of how a society balances justice and compassion lies in how it deals with teens who commit crimes. In America, that particular balance has often shifted between the extremes of lock ’em up and let ’em go.
In recent rulings, however, the Supreme Court has tipped the scale toward compassion, allowing the United States to start taking a more consistent and principled path toward adolescent crime. This reflects the progress made in better understanding how teens develop as well as evidence-based programs for successful intervention and treatment.
But the court’s job is still not done.
On Tuesday, it takes up two cases involving life sentences given for murders by 14-year-olds. In one case, a boy did the killing while in the other the boy was an accessory to murder. Both of them are now adults serving sentences of life without parole.
Each new case about teen crime has forced the high court to draw ever-more difficult distinctions on what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” for 13-to-18-year-olds. In these latest cases, both the young age of 14 combined with the fact that courts and legislatures have long considered murder different from other crimes will challenge the nine justices.
But they have good precedents to build on. In 1988, the court banned the death penalty for young people under 16 and then raised the age limit to 18 in 2005. It ended the death penalty for people with mental disabilities in 2002. And two years ago, it banned life-without-parole sentences for those under 18 convicted of crimes short of murder.
Now the main issue is this: If teens are not fully culpable for crimes other than homicide, can society fairly say they are culpable for murder? And if so, at what age?
The court’s past rulings were based on studies that show young people are still learning to manage their impulses, judge consequences, and resist peer pressure. They are not small adults. Those tendencies weigh against the normal demands of justice for retribution and deterrence.
Most of all, the court ruled that a life-without-parole sentence “improperly denies the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity.” Second chances must indeed apply to those who show growth in their moral sense.
Even if the Supreme Court rules in favor of these two boys, parole boards and governors will still be left to decide whether a teen-turned-adult inmate is ready to safely reenter society and has paid a sufficient price with time in prison. The court sets down the big principles on teen crime, but local law enforcement makes the fine-tuned individual judgments.
The “get tough” movement toward juvenile justice of the 1990s has faded as the crime rate for teens has fallen. And reform of convicted teens has improved with initiatives and experiments backed by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Progress in reducing teen crime requires a consistent approach backed up by both the courts and those involved with teens who have found the best ways to balance justice and compassion.