The Supreme Court struck a blow for juvenile justice reform when it banned no parole life sentences for juvenile offenders who don’t kill. The 6 to 3 majority decision struck down life sentences without parole on the books in 37 states. Dozens of youths have been slapped with that draconian sentence. The lifetime no-parole sentence for a teen non-killer was by all legal and moral standards a travesty and a national embarrassment.
How embarrassing? No other nation on the planet, and that includes countries that are among the most notorious human rights violators, Iran, North Korean, and the Sudan, formally impose that harsh a penalty on youth whose crime did not involve murder. In 2005, the Supreme Court took a huge step toward joining nearly all nations on the globe in how it legally deals with juveniles when it banned teen executions.
But that ruling and the latest court ruling on life terms for juveniles is not nearly enough. The way the U.S. deals with teen offenders is still a national embarrassment and screams for more wide ranging reform. In 2008, Human Rights Watch, for instance, found that the number of juvenile offenders serving life-without-possibility-of-parole sentences is far larger than the number dealt with in the Supreme Court decision.
The Supreme Court decision scraps one type of sentence for young people. However, it does not bar prosecutors from seeking life terms for juveniles who are tried as adults, and courts from imposing those sentences on juveniles. And it does not mandate that prosecutors and courts instantly retry and re-sentence the large number of juveniles that are serving those sentences.
The stock argument against a blanket prohibition against the tough sentencing for juveniles tried and sentenced as adults is that violence is violence no matter the age of the perpetrator, and that the punishment must be severe to deter crime. Prosecutors and courts in the states that convict and impose no-parole life sentences and other long term sentences on juvenile offenders have vigorously rejected challenges that the sentences are a violation of the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Hollywood sensationalism and media-driven myths about rampaging youth — not to mention the very real horror stories of gang violence and young persons who do commit horrendous crimes — also reinforce the popular notion that juveniles are violent predators. This has done much to damp down public sentiment that juvenile offenders can be helped with treatment and rehabilitation and deserve a second chance rather than a prison cell for life.
This is not to minimize the pain, suffering and trauma juvenile offenders cause with their crimes to victims and their loved ones. However, a society that slaps the irrevocable punishment of life without parole on juveniles sends the terrible message that it has thrown in the towel on turning the lives of young offenders around.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said as much in his majority opinion that scrapped teen executions. Kennedy noted that, “the punishment of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is itself a severe sanction, in particular for a young person.” He also used virtually the same words when he noted in the majority ruling on banning no parole life terms for juveniles that the sentence deprives them of “an opportunity” for release.
Kennedy acknowledged, as have legions of child violence experts, that juveniles don’t have the same maturity, judgment, or emotional development as adults. Many child experts agree that children are not natural-born predators and that, if given proper treatment, counseling, skills training and education, most juvenile offenders can be turned into productive adults.
In a report on juveniles and the death penalty, Amnesty International found that a number of child offenders sentenced to death suffered severe physical or sexual abuse. Many others were alcohol or drug impaired or suffered from acute mental illness or brain damage. Nearly all were below average intelligence.
Some of the juvenile offenders were goaded, intimidated, or threatened with violence by adults who committed crimes and forced them to be their accomplices.
Then there’s the issue of race. The no-parole sentences are hardly race-neutral. Black teens are 10 times more likely to receive a no-parole life sentence than white youths. They are even more likely to get those sentences when their victims are white.
That was the case in the two Florida cases the Supreme Court based its decision on. These cases are often tried by all-white or mostly white juries. Those same juries seldom consider age as a mitigating factor. The racial gap between black and white juvenile offenders is vast and troubling.
The rush to toss the key on black juveniles has had terrible consequences in black communities. It has increased poverty, fractured families, and further criminalized a generation of young black men.
The Supreme Court in its decision to ban no parole life sentences recognized that a civilized nation can’t call itself that if it gives up hope on its very young. The next step is for the nation to recognize that as well.