High Court Must Preserve Youth Rights In Sentencing Case

Marsha Levick, Esq. , Law 360 •
supreme court building - exterior

A string of victories in the U.S. Supreme Court between 2005 and 2016 substantially transformed American sentencing laws and policies for children convicted of murder and other serious crimes committed when they were under the age of 18.

Responding to challenges to both the death penalty and life without parole under the Eighth Amendment, the court relied on scientific research to strike extreme sentences for youths who research shows are categorically less culpable for their criminal conduct than adults.

Youths' core traits of immaturity and impetuosity, susceptibility to negative peer influences, and a unique capacity for growth and transformation convinced the court that the Eighth Amendment's proscription must be read more broadly when evaluating sentencing practices for children convicted as adults in the criminal justice system

These sentencing challenges followed the convergence of two parallel events unfolding in the justice community as we entered the 21st century: the aftereffects of the superpredator myth and emergent psychological research that forced a reevaluation of prevailing assumptions about the crimes committed by youths and the young adults who commit them.

The myth of "superpredator" — a term used to describe a generation of teens who would terrorize and victimize our communities as we turned the corner on a new century — was coined in 1995 by John Dilulio Jr., then a professor at Princeton University. The term was squarely aimed at Black youths and dominated the public discourse at the time on crime and punishment.

Though Dilulio quickly backtracked, acknowledging only a year later "that the term had sort of gotten out and gotten away from me,"[1] the damage was deep and wide. Even as annual crime statistics repeatedly belied the mythical warning, the superpredator threat sent hundreds of thousands of teenagers into America's criminal justice system.[2] 

With our sentencing practices already on steroids from recurrent tough-on-crime rhetoric, it was unsurprising that thousands of teens were sentenced to die in prison for crimes they committed as children, or that dozens were awaiting execution on death rows across America.

At the same time, scientific research emerged, revealing stark developmental differences between children and adults who commit crimes. The research identified adolescent traits that reduced youths' blameworthiness for even the most serious crimes.[3] It also showed a correlation between brain development — still underway in key regions of the brain throughout adolescence and into the early 20s — and this developmental immaturity.


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About the Expert

Marsha Levick co-founded Juvenile Law Center in 1975. Throughout her legal career, Levick has been an advocate for children’s and women's rights and is a nationally recognized expert in juvenile law.