Monday, March 19, 2012

Supreme Court To Hear Challenge To Death-In-Prison For Children

Kuntrell Jackson was convicted of murder at the age of 14.  Although he did not intend to kill the victim, did not personally do so and engaged in no violence himself, he was sentenced by an Arkansas court to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Evan Miller, another 14-year old, was also convicted of murder, and sentenced to life without parole, in Alabama.

Both sentences were mandatory and did not permit any consideration of the juvenile’s age or adolescent status.

On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court will hear argument in these two cases to decide whether sentencing 14-year-olds to life without the possibility of parole sentences constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.  The brilliant and heroic Bryan Stevenson, will be arguing both cases.

The Supreme Court has come to recognize over the past seven years that children do not possess fully formed judgment and are not as culpable as adults for their misconduct.  First, in 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the Court held that it was unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to death.  Five years later, in Graham v. Florida, it banned life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses.

Law Professor Kristen Henning, at American Constitution Society's blog explains how minors are treated differently in other areas of the law given the biological and psychological differences  between children and adults.  "Scientific research on adolescent development bolsters the commonsense understanding that teenagers lack self-control, are vulnerable to environmental pressures, and have fewer life experiences on which to draw in evaluating the consequences of their actions."  Developmental psychologists have "consistently found deficiencies in the decision-making capacities of youth, especially in fast-paced, stressful circumstances," and studies in cognitive development show that "youth often lack the capacity to process information, conceptualize future consequences and engage in logical reasoning." Recent advances in neuology confirm that "areas of the brain that control logical reasoning and responsible decision-making are the last to mature and develop."

Henning notes that "the logical underpinnings of Graham and Roper extend to juveniles convicted of homicide."   The Court has already recognized "the unique characteristics of adolescence that make a permanent, irrevocable sentence excessive and unconstitutional for a child who commits a serious felony" which should apply "equally to children convicted of a homicide."

It is significant that "only 79 people in the United States are serving life-without-parole sentences for homicide offenses committed by youth at age 13 and 14, in only 18 states.  The vast majority of jurisdictions nationwide (32 states and the District of Columbia) have never sentenced a child aged 13 or 14 to a life sentence without the possibility of parole."

As Henning concludes:
Adolescents who commit serious crimes simply cannot be said to have fixed, irredeemable characters.  A return to this scientifically validated view of children should compel the Supreme Court to ban juvenile life without parole for children, regardless of offense. Such a ban would ensure that children who commit even the most regrettable acts have a meaningful opportunity for reform. The Supreme Court has taken several crucial steps down this road, and it should not reverse course now.


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