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Sentencing Kids To Life Without Parole Unconstitutional

Sentencing Kids To Life Without Parole Unconstitutional

On Monday the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment forbids sentencing juvenile offenders to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes that do not involve homicide.  The case, Graham v. Florida, had been closely watched by juvenile law advocates and law enforcement and the decision represents a victory for all those fighting for criminal justice reform.

In many ways the decision marks the logical extension of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, particularly when dealing with juvenile offenders.  In 2005 the Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the execution of juvenile offenders, and those who argued against imposing sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles noted that a life without parole sentence was akin in many respects to a death sentence.  And Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the five-member majority, agreed, stating that if a court imposes a life sentence on a juvenile it “must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term.” 

With the ruling the United States joins what can only be described as the rest of the world’s democracies in how children are treated in the criminal justice system, a fact not lost on the majority.  But this fact mattered little to the dissenters Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito who argued that the Court had overstepped its bounds.  Thirty-seven states, the District of Columbia and the federal government all have laws that allow life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses, and according to the minority opinions, those laws reflect a super-majority of cultural values in favor of the punishment.  To rule otherwise, according to the dissent, was to usurp the will and the judgment of the state’s electorate.

While the ruling can certainly be considered a step in the right direction, it is important to note its limitations.  For instance, the ruling does not set a ceiling on the number of years a juvenile can serve for a particular offense.  Instead, it simply calls for some “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”  The Court left it to each state to explore that means and create mechanisms for compliance, which means that the procedure of providing juveniles that opportunity not only remains to be worked out, but has the possibility of being inconsistent between states, a reality that could pose its own constitutional challenges.

In the meantime, it’s a victory those of us fighting for juvenile justice reform will take, even if it is a cautious victory while we wait for states like Florida and Mississippi to work out the process for guaranteeing juveniles meaningful opportunity for release.  And the ruling does not touch the 2000 or so juveniles who are currently serving life without the possibility of parole sentences for crimes that did involve death, but that were committed before the juvenile was 17.  For those children, it is important to remember that the juvenile convicted was not necessarily the person responsible for the death–only that one occurred during the commission of a crime.  The next question we need to ask is if our resources and our values are best served in giving up on these kids as well.

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photo courtesy of abardwell via Flickr

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8:41AM PST on Jan 3, 2011

i have a friend who is doing life without parole even though he did not commit no crime he was 16 at the time 3 yrs later he was convicted as an adult for something he did not do wheres the justice in that? why must his life be taken away? these laws should be re-evaluated and these children who are now adults should be given a fair go!!!

8:37AM PST on Jan 3, 2011

this is totally sad i have a friend who is doing life without parole even though he did not do the crime he was 16 at the time 3yrs later he was convicted as an adult for something he never done why should his life be taken away unfairly?

1:09PM PDT on Jul 29, 2010

As the old maxim goes: 2 wrongs do not make a right. Juveniles should be sentenced fairly.

12:19AM PDT on May 29, 2010

Don't you think it's possible to feel bad for the victim AND do right by the teenager? ESPECIALLY since this topic is NOT about kids who murder. It's about kids who get life without parole when they HAVEN'T killed anyone.

4:17AM PDT on May 28, 2010

A juvenile murdering someone is a tragedy. Feel bad for the victim.

3:00PM PDT on May 26, 2010

a juvenile incarcerated for life is a tragedy.

9:01AM PDT on May 26, 2010

It is just

10:33PM PDT on May 25, 2010

Thanks for your contribution.

1:04AM PDT on May 25, 2010

It does need to be fair sentencing. And what if the person they killed is a sex offender that was abusing them? We need to make sure our children are protected. When they make mistakes, they have to be taught, and be just. If they kill out of cold blood, yes, life. For any other reason, that's too harsh.

7:26PM PDT on May 24, 2010

I do not agree with life sentence for juveniles, however there needs to be proper sentencing for each offender based on severity of the crime committed.

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