The imposition of life without parole sentences on young people is especially cruel because children are different from adults. Our juvenile justice system is founded on the view that children, even those convicted of serious crimes, deserve the opportunity for second chances.
Behavioral research confirms what is recognized by U.S. and state laws: children do not have adult levels of judgment, impulse control, or ability to assess risks. There is widespread agreement among child development researchers that young people who commit crimes are more likely to reform their behavior and have a better chance at rehabilitation than adults.
The Supreme Court agrees—In Roper v. Simmons, the Court explained, “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.” And Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan wrote in Miller v. Alabama, “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him — and from which he cannot usually extricate himself — no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”
We should ensure that we appropriately recognize the unique status of children by holding them accountable for the harm they have caused in ways that reflect their ability to be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.