Life without parole

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday it was unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life without parole except in cases of murder.

The case involved a 17-year-old teen from Florida who was on parole for robbery when he broke into a home and committed an-other robbery. The judge in that case sentenced Terrance Graham to the maximum sentence of life, saying the teen was a threat to society and had made a conscience decision to throw his life away. The sentenced was appealed, with attorneys for Graham basing arguments on the 2005 Supreme Court ruling that abolished the death penalty for juveniles on the grounds they are less responsible for their crimes than adults due to emotional immaturity.

Emotional maturity or lack of it could be used as an argument in a great many criminal cases I have covered, so I find that phrase intriguing.

Stating that life sentences for juveniles who didn’t kill means “a denial of hope,” the court struck them down as cruel and unusual punishment. The 5-4 decision will affect 129 juveniles serving life without parole and invalidate laws of 37 states. Currently, 11 states and the federal government have juveniles serving life without parole. More than 70 of the juvies serving life are in Florida, and their cases involve crimes such as kidnapping, rape, armed robbery and assault.

In Monday’s ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited scientific studies showing the same immaturity that makes teenagers more susceptible to peer pressure and external influences makes them strong candidates for rehabilitation.

Kennedy said juveniles “lack maturity and have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility.” Again, I could point out a variety of adult criminals I have written about who have the same problem. I think maturity strikes different people at different ages, so often a seemingly mature 17-year-old who commits a serious crime and a 19-year-old who does the same are of the same maturity level. I know a few people in their 30s and beyond who don’t possess the maturity to make good decisions, and have met 10-year-old kids who are probably capable of caring for themselves better than their parents. I know they have to put a cut-off for age somewhere to differentiate between juveniles and adults, but I’m glad it is not my job to find that line.

Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with the outcome of the vote, but wrote a separate opinion saying he would not necessarily outlaw juvenile life sentences in extreme and brutal cases such as those involving rape. Interestingly enough, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a rather scathing dissent, stating that Kennedy’s opinion about a national consensus against juvenile life sentences would “come as a surprise to the American people.”

“For the first time in its history, the court declares an entire class of offenders immune from a non-capital sentence using the categorical approach it previously reserved for the death penalty alone,” Thomas wrote, adding that he agreed with one of the majority judges that the court sometimes learns from its mistakes. “Perhaps one day, the court will learn from this one.”

The executive director of Justice Policy Institute, Tracy Velazquez, put out a news release praising the court’s decision. Velazquez said the research of adolescent brain development “clearly shows that youth are different than adults and should be treated differ-ently under the law.” Your thoughts?