Supreme Court to Allow Juveniles Serving Life Sentences to Seek Parole

This week the United States Supreme Court issued a new decision that is an important step toward reforming the U.S. criminal justice system, though it may seem insignificant upon first glance. Voting 6-3, the Supreme Court ruled to allow convicts who were sentenced to life in prison as juveniles the option to seek parole. This could affect people who have been sitting in prison since they were 13.

That’s right — hundreds of minors found guilty of murder have been given life sentences without hope of parole in modern America. This happened thanks to laws in 28 states that had some version of mandatory minimum laws for just such scenarios. Those laws were originally deemed cruel and unusual by the Supreme Court in 2012.

However, that decision only affected future cases; roughly 1,500 inmates, most of whom are imprisoned in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Louisiana, were sentenced to life without parole and were not considered under the 2012 ruling.

Both of these rulings are critical civil rights victories for two major reasons. The first pertains to the deeply flawed institution of mandatory minimums. Generally speaking, mandatory minimum sentencing laws prescribe pre-defined punishments (typically in the form of a certain number of days in jail/prison) for specific offenses. But what purpose do they serve?

Mandatory minimums were first put into place as an attempt to reform a criminal justice system which saw, in some cases, wildly unequal sentencing practices. The laws aimed to eliminate potential biases held by judges and guarantee a degree of fairness in sentencing. Mandatory minimums effectively took a great deal of power out of judges’ hands and placed it upon charts.

Sadly, despite the good intentions behind mandatory minimums, it’s clear they have come to play a major role in the United States’ modern, dysfunctional criminal justice system. What the architects behind these policies, used by states and the federal government alike, could not see is how mandatory minimums have railroaded countless criminal offenders into the U.S. prison system to create what we have today: The world’s largest prison population. And clearly, given Monday’s ruling as well as 2012′s, some U.S. Supreme Court justices are waking up to this reality.

On another level, Monday’s Supreme Court decision (along with the 2012 case) represents a hard look at the way juvenile offenders are dealt with in this country. The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, argues that it is important to guarantee “juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity — and who have since matured — will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”

Justice Kennedy’s ”transient immaturity” justification is based in fact. One of the few things criminologists can agree on is the near universal age-crime curve that exists in Western societies. This bell-shaped curve illustrates the way criminal behavior generally peaks for individuals from age 15 to 19. Soon after 19, lawbreaking begins to drop off steeply.

Why is this? While it would be foolhardy to claim the answers are singular or simple, many experts are beginning to look toward the way the human brain continues to grow well past the age of 18.

A report on several studies conducted on juvenile criminal offenders by the National Institute of Justice highlights, among other things, these links reinforce mounting evidence that the incarceration of young criminal offenders is ultimately counterproductive. One study cited focuses on a program in Seattle; beginning at age 6, it involves children, parents and teachers and has found great success. Similarly, Los Angeles schools are, rather than punishing all delinquent students, responding with life interventions; in what should be no surprise, it has been seen to discourage future delinquent behavior.

Let us be clear — there is no dispute over the seriousness of homicide. However, to hold children who are not fully mature, either emotionally or physiologically, to the same standards as those who are is little more than cruel and unusual punishment.

Photo Credit: estherpoon / Thinkstock

47 comments

Danuta W
Danuta Wabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Kathryn Irby
Past Member 3 years ago

Thanks to such Trash as Scalia and the Pervert, Clarence Thomas!!! They will do anything as long as it's low-down!!

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Marie W.
Marie W3 years ago

If animal abusers were sentenced to life- I would say system is fair.

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Kathryn Irby
Past Member 3 years ago

The legal system in this Country is so screwed up until it's pathetic. (For example, a Judge will order an offender 50 years behind bars, and they will get 2-3 instead!! If they are ordered 50 years, they should have to serve 50 years!) No good behavior crap, etc.!!

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Dominic C.
Dominic C3 years ago

Thank you SCOTUS!

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Wendy Johnson-Niblick

Dear Jane R., those questions you're asking, about whether the child has shown remorse for what they did, and whether they have been rehabilitated, and are ready to behave themselves in the community, are exactly the same kinds of questions a parole board would ask, before deciding whether or not to release them. This is a good thing. America's prisons are a human rights nightmare, and I am glad we are taking at least this small step toward more reasonable policies.

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Fi T.
Past Member 3 years ago

Allow them the second chance

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Betty H.
Betty H3 years ago

For those who say that it is dangerous to parole juveniles sentenced to life imprisonment, I wonder what they think about paroling adults who have been sentenced to life imprisonment. It seems to me that the same standards should be applied. Please also note that these persons may apply for parole; this does not mean that they will automatically be granted parole. I was also concerned that people are so willing to say that the are punks and deserve no consideration. I wonder if they actually read the article. In any case, the case for future cases has already been decided by the Supreme Court. The new decision pertains to those already held, many of them because of mandatory sentencing laws. Please read the article!

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Rose Becke
Rose Becke3 years ago

Good news

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