Juvenile justice

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled 6-3 that under the Eighth Amendment’s bar against cruel and unusual punishment, states may no longer sentence juveniles to life without parole.

The important precedent is Roper v. Simmons. In that 2005 case Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for a 5-4 majority that the death penalty for juveniles was unconstitutional. In that ruling, Justice Kennedy laid out the neurological argument for treating teenagers as less culpable than adults.

Yet as Chief Justice John Roberts now points out (in a concurring decision which attempted to narrow the precedent-setting value of the case) “Roper explicitly relied on the possible imposition of life without parole on some juvenile offenders.”

So first the slim liberal majority argues it’s safe to get rid of the death penalty for young murderers, because the court can still sentence them to life without parole. And now, five years later, Justice Kennedy writes for the slim liberal majority that life without parole is barred, too.

Talking about such harsh sentences for young defendants can start to sound punitive, draconian, unfeeling. But that’s when the young men are considered in isolation from their actual crimes. In his concurring opinion, Justice Roberts mentioned such “especially heinous or grotesque” non-homicide crimes as that of Milagro Cunningham, 21, who was 17 when he raped an 8-year-old Lake Worth, Fla. girl and buried her alive in a trash bin under 197 pounds of concrete in 2005. (Miraculously, she survived.)

Our current standards of “juvenile justice” evolved in a more innocent era, when most young men were raised in families with fathers, and the most serious crimes of the typical teenager might involve minor vandalism.

Given what some of today’s 16- and 17-year-olds actually do — and how threatening the mere physical bulk of such youths may be when they invade your living room or your child’s sleeping quarters — it may be time for the legislatures to create a third age category for criminal defendants, between those of “children” truly unable to understand the ramifications of their actions, and true adults.

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