No More Kids Sentenced to Life in Prison

Society has chosen 18 as the age of consent. It divides the adults from the children. Neuroscience shows maturation of the brain occurs well after this time. In two critical decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled sentencing children to Life without...

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled sentencing juveniles to Life without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) for non-homicide offenses was unconstitutional (Graham v. Florida, No. 08-7412). In a much anticipated decision June, 2012, the Court expanded on this decision and ruled LWOP for juveniles regardless of their crime violated the Eight Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishments (Miller v. Alabama, No. 10-9646 and Jackson v. Hobbs, No. 10-9647)”

Here are some of the factors the Court used to make their determination:

International Standard

Although the U.S. does not look to other countries to determine how to define our Constitution, the Court does seek guidance in definitions such as “cruel and unusual.” Currently, the U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences people to LWOP for crimes committed prior to age 18. This conflicts with this practice being in violation of a variety of treatise in which the United States is a party.    

National Standard

Aside from international consideration, the Court looks towards social norms for a base-line.  At the time of Graham, the court could not find a national standard addressing the sentencing of juveniles to LWOP. Six jurisdictions did not allow LWOP for any crime committed by a juvenile, seven allowed LWOP for homicide and 37 jurisdictions, the District of Columbia and the Federal Government allowed LWOP for non-homicide offenses under certain circumstances. Even in light of this, only 11 jurisdictions nationwide actually imposed LWOP for non-homicide crimes regardless of the authority to do so. Under these conditions, it appeared as a country, we cannot agree on whether or not a child should be sent to prison for life. 

Drawing the Line

As a society, Americans have determined the cut-off age between child and adult is18. Before this time, a person cannot enter into a legally binding contract (even joining the military if you graduate high school at 17 requires a parent’s signature) and often cannot consent to many actions. They cannot smoke or drink or gamble. Considering this, the U.S. criminal justice system also has to have a line especially when committing a crime requires a person to have an understanding of right and wrong and the ability to make decisions based on this. At what age does a person truly have control over their actions? The Court determined society has chosen 18.

Punishment Proportionate to the Crime

Grossly disproportionality is the term used by the court to determine if a sentence is cruel and unusual. First the court assesses whether the punishment fits the crime and is not unjustly severe considering the offense. Second, the punishment must not be extreme when compared to what another offender’s sentence for the same crime would be. In the case of a 14-year-old sentenced to LWOP, with a life expectancy of 70 years, his or her sentence figures to 56 years whereas an offender who commits a crime at 35 years old expects to do 35 years. A 21 year difference in sentencing for the same crime would be considered cruel and unusual. 

Diminished Culpability

Much of the argument reference why a juvenile should be exempt from LWOP falls into two categories. The first is mental traits and environmental vulnerabilities that diminish a child’s culpability. Neuroscience continues to expand and research continues to increase showing that the human brain does not fully mature until well after the age of 18. The portion of the brain that matures most slowly is the frontal lobe which affects decision making and impulsivity. Due to this, juveniles do not have the capacity to focus on long-term consequences, are ruled by impulsive behavior and are highly influenced by those around them. These traits which are physiological attributes create many of the situations which land a juvenile in front of a judge with the power to take away their freedom for life.

Heightened capacity for change

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