Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mandatory Juvenile Life Without Parole Sent Up the River

“When a young person is sent ‘up the river,’ we need to remember that all rivers can change course.” -- Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY)

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court held that mandatory life without parole sentencing for juveniles violates the cruel and unusual punishment provision of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. With this new decision, the Supreme Court extended its 2010 ruling in Graham v. Florida, in which the Court concluded that that juvenile life without parole for non-homicide cases is unconstitutional. This decision does not mean that a minor can never be sentenced to life without parole, it simply means that the sentencing judge must have the opportunity to consider age and circumstance when handing down a punishment.

We believe that the high court made the right decision this week. In finding that juveniles cannot be subject to mandatory life without parole sentences, the Court recognized that juveniles are in a special category, and should therefore be treated differently under the law. Kids often make rash decisions without thinking about the consequences. Recent studies have shown that children’s brains function quite differently from adults. Children’s brains continue to develop throughout their adolescent years. This continued development means that kids make impulsive decisions and usually, at the time they make a decision, they do not fully appreciate or recognize the possible consequences.

This scientific research also demonstrates that children have a greater capacity for rehabilitation. By allowing courts to take into account children’s age and circumstances, children are more likely to have an opportunity to be rehabilitated. To be sure, some children have the capacity to commit horrific acts. But mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences has required judges to sentence children to die in prison without any consideration for where a child comes from or what a child has been through. This mandatory sentencing structure has forced us, as a society, to give up on kids rather than provide them an opportunity to reform. This week’s decision helps to restore some rationality to the treatment of juveniles in our criminal justice system.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on mandatory juvenile without parole sentences echoes what the ACLU of Wyoming has been saying all along: kids are different than adults and deserve to be treated as kids, not adults, in our justice system. Learn about our efforts to fight against juvenile life without parole sentencing in Wyoming.

Julianne Gern
ACLU Legal Extern