It’s about time, don’t you think? Amidst the flurry of SCOTUS activity today (striking down three components of the Arizona immigration law, but retaining the ability for law enforcement officials to require anyone they stop to show their papers, confirming that Citizens United does indeed apply to states in the case study of Montana), I was moved by their (late) decision to rule that ordering life without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional and was considered cruel and unusual punishment. Now courts will not be able to automatically hand a juvenile a life-without-parole sentence for some crimes. This doesn’t mean that sentence will no longer happen – it just means that for crimes like murder, that sentence is not automatic.
One of the most important things to remember about childhood and adolescence is that actions taken during that time are so often misunderstood in terms of their impact and their consequences, juveniles so often lack the ability to grasp the implications and depth of their choices, and they always lack real-world context. This is long overdue. It’s true that these sentences are often brought down upon juveniles who have committed atrocious acts, or were accessories in brutal crimes, but isolating the incident from the developmental stage is risky and unfair. Putting someone away without the affirmation that we also believe they can grow and develop and change is also a psychological judgment that would likely result in the juvenile’s agreeing self-assessment that they are unable to be rehabilitated.