Children can commit terrible crimes, but they are still children. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case next month that tests that basic truth. The court should do the right thing and outlaw life sentences for juveniles.
The issue comes before the court as states increasingly bind over young defendants and charge them as if they had been adults when they committed their crimes to avoid the relatively short sentences available in the juvenile justice system. If convicted, the youths are sentenced to adult sentences and serve them in adult prisons.
Twenty years ago, that meant life in prison without the possibility of parole for Joe Harris Sullivan, who was convicted of the rape of an elderly woman when he was 13. Sullivan is appealing his sentence to the nation’s highest court, saying that it violates the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Sullivan is not alone. There are 111 juveniles serving life without parole, 77 in Florida alone.
The issue is not whether Sullivan’s crime was heinous – it was. And it’s not whether he has been rehabilitated by his prison experience.
The real question is whether Sullivan, at age 13, was capable of forming the intent necessary to make him criminally responsible for his actions in the way that we normally apply the standard to adults.
Recent research on the development of the human brain strongly suggests otherwise. Scientists used to believe that the brain stopped growing in early childhood, but the latest research shows there is continuing development into the mid-20s. One of the last things to form is the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls impulse, anger and judgment.
Even without this research, people instinctively know that 13-year-olds are not capable of making certain kinds of decisions. That’s why they can’t drive, own guns or vote and that’s why we have a separate system of justice that places a higher value on rehabilitation than punishment.
The Supreme Court recognized this in 2005, when in a 5-4 opinion it ruled that the death penalty for juveniles was unconstitutional. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy found: “The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime commited by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character.”
The logic outlawing a juvenile death penalty should be the same for a juvenile life sentence. A grim courthouse joke defines life without parole as “death on the installment plan,” and it should be reserved for those who knowingly commit crimes that most shock the conscience. Those are the people who knew what they were doing.
Adolescents cannot fit in that category, no matter how bad their crimes. The Supreme Court should recognize that and end this barbaric practice.