The Common Good

Supreme Court Debates Sentencing for Minors

Child behind bars photo, pjcross, Shutterstock.com
Child behind bars photo, pjcross, Shutterstock.com

It has been a busy few weeks at the U.S. Supreme Court. Hundreds of people having been in line over the weekend to obtain one of the coveted public tickets for the healthcare mandate case. And last week, in a case which was somewhat less publicized, the highest court in the land debated whether juveniles should receive life without parole in homicide cases, the only crime for which such a punishment is still an option for minors.

A daunting task, but one that garnered a number of thoughtful pieces throughout the media and blogosphere:

In the Florida Times-Union, Steve Mills tells the stories of people, many now adults, who were tried as adults in homicide cases, despite being juveniles when the crimes took place. What is striking is the fact that many of those profiled have now spent more time behind bars than they have as free citizens, a fact that will not change if they are not eligible for parole.

The Washington Post reported that:

"A majority of the Supreme Court on Tuesday [19 March] seemed troubled by imposing mandatory life sentences on juveniles convicted of murder but struggled to balance proper punishment for young killers with the chance for redemption."

Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor and expert in adolescent development argued in a piece for CNN that juveniles should not serve life sentences without parole. In a commanding piece which focuses on the cases of Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, Steinberg observed that:

"We are simply not good enough at predicting the behavior of a 14-year-old, even one who has committed a grisly, violent offense, to say with any certainty that he is beyond redemption."

In a piece that echoed these sentiments, star of The Wire and founder of Rewired For Change, Sonja Sohn called for a more thoughtful and compassionate view of the cases that are being debated:

"Kids can, and do, change. They should be given the opportunity to do so. Speak out against this homegrown atrocity and raise the standards of decency in our country today, so we might have a brighter, more compassionate, intelligent society and future tomorrow."

Slate was more troubled by the way that the Supreme Court has set itself up to deal with the questions posed in these cases, arguing that it has failed to be consistent, coherent or even follow through on its own rulings.

The Christian Science Monitor notes the importance of Justice Anthony Kennedy in the decision that the Supreme Court will make.

The Nation picked up on comments made by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the oral arguments of the Jackson v. Hobbs case, when she challenged the claim that condemning a teenager to die in prison for murder “reinforces the sanctity of human life.” She asked a probing question:

“You say the sanctity of human life,” Ginsburg pushed back, “but you’re dealing with a 14-year-old being sentenced to life in prison, so he will die in prison without any hope.” In other words, aren’t kids’ lives still worth something even when they’ve committed a grievous wrong?

A decision in the cases of Miller and Jackson and expected by late June.

Jack Palmer is a communications assistant at Sojourners. Follow Jack on Twitter @JackPalmer88.

Child behind bars photo, pjcross, Shutterstock.com

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