Supreme Court Decision Affirms Justice System Must Treat Youth Differently

Posted January 26, 2016
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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