In our post earlier this week, we noted that there are some important and fundamental differences between juveniles and adults, and those differences need to be reflected by the criminal justice system. Because their brains are still developing, teenagers have more difficulty with things like impulse control and predicting the consequences of their actions.
These factors obviously have some connection to a teenager’s likelihood of committing a crime. But because they are traits that often go away when teenagers reach adulthood, there is reason to believe that juvenile offenders have the capacity to reform. Unfortunately, the American criminal justice system too often tries juvenile offenders as adults not because of their age, but rather because of the severity of their crime. If a 15-year-old commits murder, should he be considered as culpable as an adult? Should his chances of reform be discounted or minimized?
The U.S. Supreme Court thinks that juveniles should be treated differently than adult offenders, and has reaffirmed this point in several momentous rulings. In 2012, the nation’s highest Court struck down sentences of life without parole for offenders who committed murder as teenagers. Critics of the practice have long said that such punishments are “cruel and unusual” in light of a juvenile’s capacity for reform.
At the time, the Court was silent on whether the ruling should be applied retroactively (to those who had already been sentenced). Many states did choose to apply the change retroactively, but there were seven states that refused to do so, including Minnesota.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court expanded its 2012 ruling, definitively saying that the earlier decision should be applied retroactively. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that inmates sentenced to life as juveniles “must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.” The decision is expected to impact more than 1,000 inmates nationwide.
If pressed, most of us could think of regrettable mistakes we made in our teenage years – some of which may have been crimes. And because such mistakes are part of growing up, our criminal justice system needs to include appropriate leniency for nearly all juvenile offenders.