Juvenile (In)justice

The Supreme Court heard two cases this past week on the issue of whether giving life sentences to juveniles for crimes other than murder violates the Constitution's 8th amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  One of the cases involves a defendant who was 13 when he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.  Apparently, this is very much a Florida issue:

 Across the country, 111 people are serving life sentences without
parole for crimes they committed as juveniles that did not result in a
death, according to one report; 77 of them are locked up in Florida,
for crimes including armed robbery and carjacking. The state took a
get-tough approach in the 1990s in response to a crime wave that was
"compromising the safety of residents, visitors, and international
tourists, and threatening the state's bedrock tourism industry,"
Florida's brief to the court states.

That brief came in the case of Terrance Jamar Graham, a second
petition the court accepted. Graham, of Jacksonville, received a life
sentence after being part of a group that robbed a barbecue restaurant
when he was 16; while on probation a year later, he was part of an
armed burglary. Again, a judge doubted Graham's ability to ever change
his ways; his accomplices served short sentences.

Had quite a good discussion of this going on my on-line class discussion for Public Policy.  Firstly, on a practical level, this policy is just incredibly stupid.  Do you really want to make a determination that someone is hopelessly beyond redemption from actions they took when they are 13?  Seriously– that is just moronic.  What a waste of state resources locking someone up forever because of something they did when they were a young teenager.  As for the Constitutional issue, I'm definitely going with cruel and unusual.  As readers of this blog presumably know, I'm a believer that brain science should matter in these things (of course, the name of the blog reflects this).  Juvenile brains are quite simply physically immature (not fully myelinated in the prefrontal cortex) in the part that is responsible for judgment.  In a sense, they are impaired.  When somebody's brain is impaired we don't hold them fully legally responsible for their actions.  Punished? yes; life in prison with no parole? no.




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