Juvenile offenders — other than those found guilty of murder — cannot be sentenced to life without parole. This is great news, but I wish that the court had gone further and held that no juveniles can be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. After all, this decision doesn’t apply to people like Sara Kruzan, who was put in jail at 16 for killing her abusive pimp.
It’s important to point out that this isn’t about giving anyone a get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s not saying that no juvenile should be in prison for life. But juveniles do not have the same brain development as adults — they lack the same degree of impulse control and the ability to fully appreciate the consequences of their actions. This case simply allows a parole board to evaluate the offender’s record and efforts at rehabilitation. If the person who was a juvenile when they committed a crime goes before a parole board 25 years later and that person is still dangerous, the board can reject the application for parole. Alternately, if you have a kid who committed two armed robberies at 16 and 17 and twenty years later isn’t a danger to anyone, the parole board can recommend his release.
It’s also worth pointing out that more than half of all juveniles serving sentences of life without parole are first-time offenders. At least 74 of the 2,574 people currently in prison for life for crimes they committed as juveniles were under the age of 14 when they committed the crime. And African-American youth are serving sentences for life without parole at about ten times the rate of white youth.
This is a thoroughly common-sense decision, and comes on the heels of the Court finally ruling that it’s cruel and unusual to execute juveniles. Perhaps some day we’ll see the court extend this line of juvenile justice cases even further.
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