By Murray Light
Does it make any sense for a judge to sentence a juvenile to life imprisonment and then add the caveat that the youngster shall not have the possibility of parole so long as he or she is alive?
There are those who say the judge who makes this a part of his sentencing of a juvenile is in violation of the Eighth Amendment that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. They point to the 2005 ruling in Roper v. Simmons in which the Supreme Court abolished the death penalty for juveniles, and say that the logic for that decision should extend to life imprisonment without parole as well.
The Supreme Court currently has before it two cases involving juveniles and must decide whether life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. A sentence of life without the possibility of parole is a judgment that an offender will never be fit to return to civil society no matter how long he or she lives.
There are those who say that this punishment is proper for adults who have committed terrible crimes but not for juveniles. They make the case that the court in the Roper case emphasized the immaturity of juveniles even at age 17, a point that finds growing support in brain science.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was the dominant court voice in the Roper case and who wrote for the court majority in its opinion, is likely to be assigned the role of writing the opinion in the two pending court cases. Since the ruling in the Roper case, research on brain behavior of juveniles strongly indicates that they are less mature than adults. This should be important in deciding whether that immaturity justified an exclusion from the sentence of life without parole. It is interesting to note that the two pending cases awaiting final determination by the court are quite different. In one case, the defendant was sentenced to life without parole for a probation violation involving a house break-in at the age of 17. In the other case, the defendant was convicted of sexual assault at the age of 13. It is difficult to understand how the two cases, so differing in severity, could be linked. Neither one on the face of it appears serious enough to justify the original sentences.
I would have to say that life without parole is never a fair sentence for a juvenile, although I do believe that teenagers must be held accountable and punished for their misdeeds. One cannot overlook another factor that has come to the forefront since the Roper case. Recent studies by very reliable groups now indicate that juveniles who commit crimes, including very serious offenses, grow up to be law-abiding adults and that it is impossible to predict which juvenile offenders will become criminals in their adult lives.
Hopefully, Chief Justice John Roberts will assign Kennedy to write the opinion of the court in these two important but disparate cases. Currently there are 2,574 juveniles serving life without parole. It is a statistic we cannot be proud of.
Now, one final but important thought on this subject. It would be worthwhile for a body of lawmakers, with judicial backgrounds, to be named to review each of the 2,574 cases to determine if these juveniles now incarcerated for life have been placed there for the right reasons. I am certain many could or should be released from prison.
Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.