I’m sure you’re familiar with the saying that the well-being of a nation can be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable. If that is the case, then the United States can look to Somalia as an indicator of its national well-being. That’s because the United States and Somalia are the only two nations in the world that have not ratified Article 37 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which bans participants from sentencing children to life in prison.
The Supreme Court will take this issue up today as it will hear arguments concerning the practice of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole for offenses that do not involve killing. The practice has been challenged as a violation of the consitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Life sentences with no chance for parole are harsh and admittedly unusual sentences for those children who were tried as adults and convicted of crimes less than killing. In fact, only 109 offenders currently serve such sentences.
The decision to review the practice is a direct result of earlier precedent that outlawed the practice of sentencing juveniles to death. Those arguing against sentencing juvenlies to life without parole argue that outlawing this practice is a natural extension of that caselaw. The sentence according to juvenile justice advocates is really the same as an execution sentence, wholly inappropriate and misguided, even when dealing with serious offenses committed by juveniles such as rape and burglary.
But Florida and 19 other states disagree. They argue they need the sentencing flexibiltiy, and thus retaining the life-without-parole sentence in order to effectively manage its juvenile offenders. Opponents of the sentences note that most states have rejected the practice for crimes that did not involve a killing. The list of those lobbying against the practice include pyshcologists, corrections officials, former lawmakers, and even some victims.
Given the disposition of the case the Supreme Court is not being asked to examine the underlying convictions of the youth–that is, the Justices will not determine ultimate guilt or innocence. Rather, they will just examine the very narrow issue of whether or not the sentence itself can be reconciled with our consitutional guarantees.
The short answer to the question should be no. The Supreme Court has already held it unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to death for crimes involving killing and states should not be able to make an end run around that proclamation by simply throwing away the prison key. Of these 109 offenders currently serving life without parole sentences, seven were convicted for crimes committed when they were 13. To simply give up on a child, no matter how troubled he or she may be, is inexcusable for a country with as much access to wealth, opportunity, and promise as the United States. Such a punishment goes well beyond any punitive measure and is simply a resignation and declaration that as a society we just don’t care about some kids. If that is the case, and if that is the truth, then we deserve to have Somalia as our companion on the world’s stage.
photo courtesy of rjakobbson via Flickr.