In real life and in fiction, young people commit serious crimes. In late March, the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether juveniles–14 year-olds, in these two cases–can be sentenced to life without parole for murder. The SCOTUS blog–always a great source–provides a roundup of coverage and a detailed report on the arguments.
The cases ask whether a state should be able to impose a mandatory sentence of life without parole on juveniles, e.g., those under 18 at the time of their crime. Should it be optional? Barred entirely? Or barred only for very young offenders, e.g., 14 and under?
The cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, are the third in recent years asking what limits should be put on sentences for juveniles.
As I discussed in Books, Crooks & Counselors, in Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Court struck down the death penalty for crimes committed before 18. It held that the death penalty for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment and is “disproportionate” in light of the general immaturity of youth. It acknowledged that some juveniles commit brutal crimes, but wrote that their
“susceptibility … to immature and irresponsible behavior means their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult. … 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.”
The majority also concluded that juvenile executions do not serve the goals of retribution or deterrence.
And in Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole for crimes not involving murder, and that inmates already under such a sentence must be given an opportunity to show grounds for early release.
Something for your fictional prosecutors, defense lawyers, and other characters to consider.
I’m in Oregon this week for Don Maass’s Breakout Novel workshop. Wow. My characters may never recover–and that’s a good thing!