Good News

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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7 comments for “Good News

  1. FashionablyEvil
    May 17, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Definitely a step in the right direction. Maybe one day we’ll get to some semblance of meaningful prison reform (though not if Thomas has anything to say about it, apparently.)

  2. PrettyAmiable
    May 17, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    CNN has an article right now about SCOTUS determining that they can keep sex offenders indefinitely after they’ve served their terms. I wonder how these two things are reconciled or how it’ll pan out if someone under a given age commits a sex offense and is determined to still be a danger at the end of the non-life sentence.

  3. William
    May 17, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    FashionablyEvil: Heres the weird bit. Thomas dissented here, apparently because he felt that some crimes (I think his example was aggravated sexual assault of a minor) other than murder might warrant a life sentence for juvenile offenders. On the same day he dissented against Comstock, arguing against civil commitment for sex offenders.

    • May 17, 2010 at 5:02 pm

      William, if you read Thomas’s dissent, it’s also because he objected to the Court imposing its “morals” on the states — that states and voters have the right to decide whether or not to imprison people for life. Because, you know, it’s not like it’s the Court’s duty to evaluate state and federal laws to see if they’re constitutional.

      (In other words, trying to figure out why Thomas does anything he does is a pointless game).

  4. William
    May 17, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    I was trying to thumbnail it, but yeah, you’re right. As a psychologist I know theres a reason he does what he does and I’m determined to find it, if only in the name of morbid curiosity.

  5. May 17, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    Now if only we stop trying juveniles “as adults.”

  6. May 18, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Definitely a good decision. However, it’s also true that teenagers are different from younger children, and for that matter 20-somethings are different from older adults; our dividing lines retain a good degree of arbitrariness. Older men commit far, far fewer violent crimes than younger men, so much so that if the goal is to reduce violent crime, it might not be a bad policy to take anyone convicted of any violent crime before they’re 30 and just lock them up until their 40th birthday, and then set them free, regardless of how horrible (or how relatively minor, for that matter) the crime was. Or just imprison all men until they turn 40, though it will be a few months before I’ll feel able to fully endorse that proposal.

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