The Supreme Court Takes on Juvenile LWOP
Children are not adults. They have separate privileges, expectations and responsibilities, along with separate laws. It’s not a difficult distinction for most to make.
Despite this – until yesterday’s 5-4 Supreme Court decision – juveniles could be subject to mandatory life imprisonment without parole, as has regrettably happened to at least 2,500 kids already.
I’m relieved that the our highest court can still occasionally render just and sensible rulings. An inhumane, indefensible, but most importantly a historically anomalous practice has been curbed, though unfortunately not eliminated: Judges can still deliver life sentences without parole to minors on a case by case basis.
Despite being a victory, Miller v. Alabama is only a bittersweet dollop of justice, curdled by the contemptuous dissents of the court’s conservative wing.
Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the minority stated, “Put simply, 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. That reality should preclude finding that mandatory life imprisonment for juvenile killers violated the Eighth Amendment.”
The Eighth Amendment mandates, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
He reasons that because this injustice has been oft repeated, it has become the norm and therefore cannot be considered “unusual” under the Eighth Amendment. Roberts’ reasoning forgoes a centerpiece of logic, that because something has been done does not justify continuing to do it. By his reasoning any long standing practice – or in this case, not even that long standing – can be continued by virtue of its having been done before. More than silly, that’s moronic.
Furthermore, the adoption of the practice itself subverts the original purpose of the juvenile justice system- rehabilitation. Since the inception of the juvenile court in 1899, youth were meant to receive rehabilitation through their sentences. What would even be the point of creating a distinct justice system if the intention was to continue punishing juvenile and adult offenders alike.
Our nation made a conscious decision to move beyond the Dickensian barbarism of earlier centuries, embracing the obvious truth that juveniles are not culpable in the same way as adults and deserve the opportunity to mature and reform.
It seems Justices Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thomas prefer a world that tosses its uncomfortable problems into a hole to forget about them. Mandatory life sentencing of juveniles is an immature and indecent act. Given an opportunity to amend an unjustifiable miscarriage of justice pursued over recent decades as a byproduct of “tough on crime” grandiloquence, these four chose to stand, once again, on the wrong side of history.
Today is a victory for children and for justice, meeting with “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” as Former Chief Justice Earl Warren advised in his Trop v. Dulles majority opinion.
Be wary though. This one step forward is muddied by two of the court's other decisions of the day, one upholding the centerpiece of the Arizona Immigration Law SB 1070, the other a refusal to reconsider Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the landmark decision that has opened the floodgates to unchecked corporate donations to political campaigns.
With mandatory life imprisonment eliminated, life sentencing is now at the discretion of individual judges. Vote your conscience and refuse to elect judges who would destroy a child’s life over a mistake they cannot comprehend.
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