Supreme Court Decision Affirms Justice System Must Treat Youth Differently

Posted January 26, 2016
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog supremecourtdecision 2016

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that peo­ple sen­tenced as teenagers to life impris­on­ment for mur­der must have a chance to argue that they be released from prison. The rul­ing came in Mont­gomery v. Louisiana and set­tled a ques­tion the court left open in 2012, when it first banned manda­to­ry life impris­on­ment for chil­dren and youth under the age of 18 in Miller v. Alaba­ma. Today’s rul­ing affirms that Miller v. Alaba­ma applies retroac­tive­ly to peo­ple con­demned to spend their lives in prison for acts com­mit­ted when they were under 18. The Jus­tices rea­soned that youth lack the matu­ri­ty, impulse con­trol and judg­ment that come with adult­hood and have a greater capac­i­ty for reform. The Mont­gomery rul­ing offers as many as 2,000 peo­ple, sen­tenced as chil­dren, the oppor­tu­ni­ty to have their cas­es reviewed and the poten­tial for their sen­tences to be reduced.

At every stage of the jus­tice sys­tem, all youth, regard­less of offense, should receive age-appro­pri­ate respons­es and treat­ment. The adult crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem can­not meet the devel­op­men­tal needs of youth and expos­es young peo­ple to an array of deep phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal harms. Giv­en that the ado­les­cent brain, body, and emo­tions are not fixed, but rather high­ly dynam­ic and respon­sive to their envi­ron­ment until a young per­son reach­es his or her mid-20s, youth who have bro­ken the law should be held account­able in ways that rec­og­nize their devel­op­men­tal stage and capac­i­ty for change. While our juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem remains far from per­fect, espe­cial­ly with respect to the harsh, puni­tive con­di­tions in youth pris­ons across the coun­try, the promise of a dif­fer­ent sys­tem for young peo­ple cer­tain­ly can­not be real­ized if youth are treat­ed like adults.

The Mont­gomery case offers an oppor­tu­ni­ty of reduced sen­tences for peo­ple who were ordered to prison for life with­out parole for mur­ders they were con­vict­ed of com­mit­ting when under the age of 18. The mes­sage the Supreme Court’s rul­ing sends should res­onate well beyond the cou­ple of thou­sand cas­es for which it applies. It sends the impor­tant mes­sage that all chil­dren — even those who have com­mit­ted the worst crimes — deserve to be equipped with skills and oppor­tu­ni­ties that allow them to succeed.

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