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No More Kids Sentenced to Life in Prison

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

The second argument stems from the first and addresses a juvenile’s heightened capacity for change. With immature brains and increased susceptibility to their environment, juveniles are the perfect candidate for rehabilitation. Although many argue certain people are bad to the core, what judge or jury could make the determination that an offender is “irredeemably depraved” and therefore incapable of change? With juveniles sentenced to LWOP, a judge or jury has done just that. Criminal justice professionals must be given the authority to determine in individual cases if criminal behaviors were created by the qualities of youth or by bad character.

Another consideration created by a juvenile’s neurodevelopment is the difficulty counsel has representing them. Juvenile clients are impulsive, have difficulty thinking in the long-term and are reluctant to trust adults. This creates an environment of ineffective counsel.

Although many professionals applaud the Court’s decision, some believe this is a slap in the face for the victim’s of juveniles who have committed heinous crimes prior to the age of 18. This is not true. Even though LWOP has been held unconstitutional, a State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom for an offender just because LWOP is not a sentencing option. An offender’s release can be based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation. If an offender continues to show poor judgment and criminal proclivity, they remain in corrections finishing out their sentence. A sentence that is not disproportionate based on the age at which they committed their crime. 

Under the Eighth Amendment, the State is tasked with respecting the human attributes of an offender regardless of the seriousness of their crime. It is precisely these human attributes of juveniles that must be considered and why they must be treated differently than adults. The U.S. Supreme Court agrees. Even the dissenting justices did not argue this point. They simply stated it was the legislature’s responsibility to determine sentencing and not the courts. Children are children. We cannot change the rules just because we don’t like their behavior.


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About The Author:

Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.