A humane decision

This week, the Supreme Court took another step — albeit a small one — toward restricting the severity of punishments courts can impose on juvenile offenders. In a 5-4 ruling, in which Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with the court's liberal wing, the justices ruled that juveniles convicted of murder may not be given mandatory sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan said "a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty" on minors under the age of 18.

The decision, based on the Constitution's Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, was the third recent ruling in which Justice Kennedy sided with the court's liberals to limit the kinds of punishments that can be imposed on youthful offenders. In 2005, the justices banned the execution of juveniles, and in 2010 they outlawed sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes other than homicide.


But because the court stopped short of banning all sentences of life without parole for juveniles — judges and juries can still impose the punishment, even though the law may no longer require them to do so — the justices still haven't gone far enough to protect minors from the harshest penalties imposed on adult offenders.

A growing body of scientific evidence about adolescent brain development suggests that juveniles simply do not possess the emotional and intellectual maturity to fully appreciate the consequences of their actions, either for themselves or for others. Nor do they possess the judgment, foresight and impulse control of adults.


No one disputes that troubled youngsters are capable of committing horrific crimes. One of the cases the court considered this week involved a 14-year-old Alabama youth who brutally bashed his victim with a baseball bat before setting fire to the man's trailer, killing him. The other involved a 14-year-old from Arkansas convicted for his role in the shotgun slaying of a video store clerk.

But the reason the law traditionally has treated juveniles differently from adults is precisely because society recognizes they are not yet fully formed individuals capable of assuming full responsibility for their behavior, and therefore they cannot be held to the same moral and ethical standards as adults — nor should they be subject to comparably severe penalties.

In his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts rejected the argument that life without parole for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment. "Put simply," he wrote, "if a 17-year-old is convicted of deliberately murdering an innocent victim, it is not 'unusual' for the murderer to receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole" — a complaint echoed by Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote that under the majority's ruling "even a 171/2-year-old who sets off a bomb in a crowded mall or guns down a dozen students ... must be given a chance to persuade a judge to permit his release into society."

But is condemning a 17-year-old to die in prison any less "unusual" that executing a 14-year-old, which the court has already barred? Is sentencing a 17-year-old convicted of robbery to life without parole, which the court also rejected, not equally cruel? Justice Kagan's opinion doesn't preclude life without parole for juveniles, but it does suggest that "appropriate occasions" for such penalties probably "will be uncommon." Given the possibility that even the most troubled youths might one day rehabilitate themselves, a more humane system of justice would recognize that such punishments are never appropriate for juvenile offenders.