Life Without Parole For Minors Held Unconstitutional By SCOTUS
Justice is the elusive concept of balance. The idea that the damage which a crime inflicts on society it balanced by the fining or incarceration of the person convicted of the crime is one of the ways that we balance the scales. This too often lost on those who feel that incarceration is only for the purpose of punishment and that there should be no rehabilitation component.
This kind of thinking leads to ideas like three strike laws, which allow the sentence of imprisonment for life to be levied on anyone who commits three felonies. This is regardless of the nature of the third felony. It is because of these kinds of laws that we see convicted felons sentenced to life behind bars for the crime of stealing a bicycle.
Today the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling which does not address threes strikes laws, but does address the imposition of life sentences on juveniles. In Graham v. Florida the SCOTUS was asked if it was unconstitutional for states to be able to sentence juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole, if their crimes did not involve a homicide.
Lawyers for Mr. Graham argued that to lock him away for life without the chance of parole for crimes committed before he reached his majority was a violation of the Eight Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Mr. Graham had pled guilty one count of armed burglary and one count of armed robbery in when he was 16. Since he had no prior criminal record and as part of the plea agreement he was sentenced to three years probation.
When he was 17 he was accused of taking part in a home invasion with two other older men. Mr. Graham insisted that he was innocents, though he admitted to having broken his curfew on the night of the crime. The court (without a jury trial) found that the preponderance of evidence (a lower standard than reasonable doubt) indicated that he had committed the crime. Since Mr. Graham admitted to breaking his probation curfew, he was then sentenced to life without parole for the original crime of armed burglary.
So, at age 17, before he could sign a contract, before he could vote, Mr. Graham faced the rest of his life in prison, with no chance to show that he had changed and no ability to press for release back into society. The High Court in a 5-4 majority found that this was indeed cruel and unusual punishment.
The majority opinion was written by Justice Kennedy and used the same thinking that he used in the opinion which found that executing people who where under 18 was also unconstitutional.
The majority opinions found that all such sentences should be considered unconstitutional, and are open for review. This is a very good bit of news. It does not mean that we are going to turn the felons who were sentenced for life lose, merely that they will be able to contest the “without parole” portion of their sentence.
This is also good news for a nation which has been incarcerating more and more of its population. The idea that someone under 18 can be charged as an adult and given adult sentences has always been problematic. The argument for this policy has been that there are crimes which when committed by anyone are so heinous they void the special status that we give children under the law.
The problem here has always been that it ignores the fact that children have this status because it is clear they do not think or reason like adults. Over the last decade there has been an increasing body of scientific evidence that teens ability to judge risk and consequences are particularly impaired as their brain chemistry changes over from child to adult. What we think of as adult brain function is really not established fully until the mid-20’s. To hold minors to the same standard that we hold adults ignores these facts.
In the long run establishing a more defined threshold for life without parole imprisonment will help us with our prisons problem. No nation on the face of the planet locks up more of its citizens than the Untied States. As Sen. Jim Webb pushes forward with his Commission to address this issue, having the Supreme Court defining bright lines in terms of who is eligible for life time incarceration will make that work clearer and hopefully a little less political.
The floor is yours.