January 27, 2012
It's Time to Ban Sentences of Life Without Parole for Juveniles
photo by Steve Liss
Are you the same person you were when you were 14 years old?
Or have you gained some insight and wisdom, and become more responsible since then? With few exceptions, we all experience dramatic changes in the way we think and handle ourselves as we move into adulthood. But what if a 14-year-old makes a terrible decision that he can't take back—something that resulted in the death of another person? Does the fact that he made a horrible decision suddenly erase his innate capacity for change? Settled research says no.
Studies show that children do not possess the same levels of judgment, impulse control, or ability to assess risks or long-term consequences as an adult. Laurence Steinberg, Distinguished University Professor at Temple University, observed, "It's as if the accelerator is pressed to the floor before a good braking system is in place." In the last six years, the United States Supreme Court recognized these attributes of youth and banned the use of adult sentences to punish juvenile offenders. In 2005, the Court abolished the juvenile death penalty for all juveniles under eighteen years of age who have been convicted of murder. In 2010, the Court abolished sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes. Just last year, relying on the same research findings, the Court ruled that a child's age is relevant to the Miranda custody analysis.
This spring, the Court will consider whether teens should be sentenced to life wihout parole in two homicide cases, Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama. Juvenile Law Center recently filed an amicus brief before the Court in support of Jackson and Miller, both sentenced to die in prison following convictions for murder. Writing on behalf of 90 advocacy organizations and academic scholars across the country, Juvenile Law Center and its amici are challenging the constitutionality of life without parole sentences imposed on juveniles (JLWOP) even in homicide cases. We argue that different sentencing principles govern the Court's analysis of this punishment under current Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. Our argument notes the Court's recent adoption of developmental and neuroscientific research demonstrating youths' unique developmental characteristics. The Court recognizes that 'kids are different' from adults in constitutionally relevant ways, and are much more amenable to change and rehabilitation; imposing life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Despite worldwide recognition and understanding that children should not be treated the same as adults, there are currently over 2,570 U.S. citizens serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed when they were 17 or younger, some as young as 13 years of age. Nearly 20% of these individuals have been sentenced to die in Pennsylvania's prisons. Mandatory sentencing guidelines in many states dictate that children who commit certain crimes automatically face the same life without the possibility of parole sentence as an adult. The United States is the only country in the world that allows children to be treated the same as adults, which also means Pennsylvania leads the world in meting out such sentences. Seven states have independently taken steps to officially banish JLWOP and five other states, while not taking legislative action, effectively banished the practice by refusing to impose JLWOP sentences.
Anyone who remembers being a teenager or who is a parent knows that children are not the same as adults and should not be treated as such. State and federal laws reflect these differences in nearly every other area of law and policy—14-year-olds are not permitted to drive, buy cigarettes, vote, or serve in the military. Research also reveals that young people who commit crimes are much more likely to reform their behavior and have a better chance at rehabilitation than adults, yet most states refuse to acknowledge these developmental differences when it comes to criminal law.
'Adult time for adult crime' is a hollow slogan that the Supreme Court has roundly rejected, writing just last term that 'children are not miniature adults.' Sentencing schemes that don't allow for the consideration of the mitigating factors of youth are incompatible with law and science. Neither appellants nor amici in the Supreme Court cases argue that all juveniles should receive parole. We do argue, however, that every juvenile should have the opportunity to be considered for parole.
It's time to end this barbaric sentence.