Life without parole for young killers?

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!  

6 thoughts on “Life without parole for young killers?

  1. Actually, I’ve heard people don’t really reach maturity – able to hold in check their impulsive nature – until they’re 25. It doesn’t seem right to hold any juvenile to life without parole. And I can’t see holding any juvenile to life without parole when murder was not committed, either.

    • Gloria, good point. Sentencing — esp in capital cases — does typically allow for consideration of individual factors, like maturity, intelligence, and so on, except in mandatory sentencing, which is what’s at issue in the two cases currently before the Court.

  2. If they cannot be held accountable because of brain development and Supreme Court rulings they should always be under the watch of an adult who IS held accountable. Otherwise, it is like rabid dogs who got grandfathered in from being held in quarantine.

    And in many states one won’t learn their names either before they are let loose on society again. What sources do you recommend for studying juvenile law in the various states? (Reading ohio.com yesterday I noted that they did not name the juveniles in Akron, Ohio who were armed robbers trolling in the night for victims who were walking or bicycling so they seem to be one that doesn’t name them even for serious crimes.)

    • Brenda, the issue in these cases is not whether the juvenile should be held accountable — that’s a given — but the most appropriate ways to do so, and what level of flexibility the sentencing judge should have.

      There are some national associations focusing on juvenile law and offenders — I’m away from my home computer right now so can’t give you specific sources at the moment.

  3. I understand that 14 and 15 year olds, even 16 and 17 year olds think like kids. That’s cause they are kids. I don’t want to hold them to levels of responsiblity that adults are held to.

    However, I’m increasingly alarmed by the total lack of civility displayed by youth in general. I’m certain that the TV shows aimed at them and the movies encourage insolence, disrespect, disregard for others…disdain and contempt for authority. In our area (the greater NYC metro area) we’ve seen teens acting horribly in school. We’ve seen an increase in shoplifting by teens…and a lot of other bad teen behavior. I’ve heard similar things from friends and relatives who live in other parts of the country. So, it’s not just NYC.

    It’s time for adults to take control again. Teens are way to young mentally and emotionally to be calling the shots.

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