In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Arizona immigration law and the pending decision this week on the Affordable Care Act, little attention has been paid to another court decision handed down this week.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 states cannot mandate life without the possibility of parole sentences for juveniles.
The court deemed this rigid stance “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The American judicial system has long taken the stance children and adults should be treated differently.
The juvenile system focuses on rehabilitation, and one would argue the adult system leans toward punishment.
It has long been argued children younger than the age of 18 are not able to fully understand the consequences of their actions.
Children’s brains, in fact, do not completely finish developing until they are in their early 20s.
The juvenile system leaves the door open for rehabilitation.
However, with children increasingly committing violent crimes, the justice system and society as a whole is left to question how to deal with violent child offenders.
The four dissenting justices on the court appropriately expressed their reservations about opportunities for lenient punishment for those youth who commit the most violent crimes, specifically murder.
Samuel Alito said in the dissenting opinion, “Even a 17-and half-year-old who sets off a bomb in crowded mall or guns down a dozen students and teachers is a ‘child’ and must be given a chance to persuade a judge to permit his release into society.”
One factor to take into consideration is jail overcrowding and the shear duration the justice system might have to house some of these youth.
According to data provided to the court, roughly 2,500 people are behind bars for life with no chance of winning their freedom for murders they committed before their 18th birthday. More than 2,000 of them were there because the sentence was mandated by a legislature.
Advocates say 79 of them are in prison for crimes that took place when they were 14 or younger.
These children will grow to adulthood and could spend the next 50 years or more behind bars.
The deciding factors, however, should be an issue of public safety and humanity.
Some would argue no punishment is enough for a person who takes another life.
However, a possibility should be left open that a human who committed a crime in their youth, after years in confinement, would be able to repent of their crimes, be released and rejoin society as a productive citizen.
Furthermore, the court did not eliminate the option for juveniles who commit heinous crimes from being sentenced to life without parole.
It merely requires the offender’s age and the case circumstances to be taken into consideration.
No sentence can truly ease the pain of someone who has lost a loved one to violence.
We can only hope that we as communities can do more to steer youth away from violence, and our girls and boys will not be faced with lives behind bars.
Cristina Janney is the managing editor of The McPherson Sentinel. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.