No Real Chance for Rehabilitation
“From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed.” Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)
In May 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that Juveniles may no longer be sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole for any crime short of homicide. The message was clear – young offenders must be treated differently from adults, even for heinous crimes. The court ruled 5 to 4 that denying juveniles (who have not committed homicide) a chance to ever rejoin society violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. National and global consensus dictates that we simply can no longer lock up our youth and throw away the key, no matter the crime.
The decision follows the 2005 ruling that juveniles may never be executed, regardless of the severity of the crime. We are, slowly but surely, rectifying several inhumane standards of punishment that have plagued our justice system for too long. But we must remain cognizant of America’s evolving standards of decency, and work towards a time when those who break the law within the first eighteen years of life no longer face the possibility of dying behind bars.
Youth can and do commit terrible crimes, and they should be held accountable for their actions. However, life sentences ignore that young people have a unique ability to change. Youth are different from adults, and they have a greater capacity for rehabilitation. It is not, and has never been as simple as “adult time for adult crime.” That is why it is crucial to provide youth with meaningful reviews of their life sentences to ensure that those who have reformed are given an opportunity to reap the benefits.
Nationally, 59 percent of juveniles sentenced this severely are first-time offenders without a single crime on their record. These are not the worst of the worst, yet we treat them as irreparable. Can it really be true that in America’s eyes one bad decision is enough to prevent a child from ever redeeming themselves? Where is the justice in that? The racial disparities are also stark. In California, the state with the highest number of juveniles serving life without parole, African American youth are sentenced at over 18 times the rate of white youth; Hispanic youth face 5 times more likelihood than their white peers. An unjust system administered in an unfair manner.
We must also bear in mind that many youth receiving this sentence were convicted for a murder in which they played a minor role. In fact, a quarter of the juveniles sentenced to life in prison without parole didn’t commit the murder, but were present when it happened. Under the felony murder rule, they are guilty, but only by association. Their stories are harrowing, and must be heard to be believed. See the video below for one example.
There are more than 2,200 youth offenders serving life without the possibility of parole in the United States, while in the rest of the world there are zero. The United States was the first government to recognize the special needs of youth in the justice system, and it is time for America to return to a position of leadership in effective and humane treatment of youth.