Supreme Court: Juveniles Cannot Be Subjected To Mandatory Sentences Of Life Without Parole

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that juvenile offenders who commit homicide crimes cannot be mandatorily sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The ruling extends the reasoning of a 2009 decision prohibiting the similar sentences for juveniles who commit non-homicide crimes. The decision followed a predictable pattern — it was decided 5-4 — but unlike some recent criminal justice cases, Justice Kennedy sided with the court’s “liberal” justices.

Two factors contribute to the determination that mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment: first, life without parole for a juvenile is like a death sentence, and second, children, who lack maturity and a sense of responsibility, are constitutionally different from adults when it comes to sentencing. Of course, mandatory sentencing schemes do not take into account any characteristics, including age, of defendants.

Recent research on brain development in teenagers backs up the Court’s determination that children are different from adults, particalary when it comes to characteristics that should matter for sentencing: children are more reckless, risk-taking, and impulsive. A report published last year by British scientists, lawyers, and ethicists, argues that emerging understanding of how children’s brains develop should inform how we treat children who commit crimes:

“A number of psychologists have already shown that adolescents are not wholly responsible individuals and are inclined to take risks and behave in irresponsible ways,” said Nicholas Mackintosh, an emeritus professor in the department of experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge and chair of the Royal Society panel. “What neuroscience has shown in the last 10 years is that this is at least associated with the fact that the brain continues to develop throughout adolescence.”

In particular, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, impulse control and cognitive control, is among the slowest parts of the brain to mature and is not fully developed until around the age of 20. “Neuroscience adds to the evidence that a 10 or 12 or 15-year-old does not have a fully adult brain in many important respects,” said Mackintosh.

Differences in brain development are not the only characteristics that make juveniles different from adults. According to the court, juveniles are also more vulnerable to outside influences, lack control over their environment, and have a greater capacity for reform. Together, the characteristics specific to juveniles undercut both the retribution and deterrence justifications used to impose a punishment as severe as life without parole. A child who commits a crime is likely to be less blameworthy than an adult and less likely to consider the consequences of punishment before acting. The result of today’s decision: when it comes to mandatory sentencing, age matters.

Alex Brown