Friday, May 21, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
In a decision that has opened up a debate about juvenile sentencing, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that it is cruel and unusual punishment to give juvenile offenders life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes in which no one dies.
The opinion comes in a case involving a Florida teenager who at age 16 took part in a brutal armed robbery. The teen pleaded guilty in a deal that allowed him to avoid a lengthy prison sentence. He received a year in jail and three years’ probation. Several months after his jail term ended, the teen took part in a home invasion robbery and admitted to being involved in several other robberies. A judge sentenced the teen to life in prison for violating his probation. Florida does not offer parole.
This case raises a serious issue about the role of the juvenile justice system. As crimes committed by juveniles have become more violent, the system has tried to balance the seriousness of the crimes with the age and maturity of the offenders.
Writing for the court, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that the court previously found that because of their youth, juveniles had “lessened culpability” and are thus “less deserving of the most severe punishments.” He concluded that while juveniles could still be sentenced to long jail terms, they must have “some realistic opportunity to obtain release.”
Kennedy wrote that a life sentence without the possibility of parole “cannot be justified by the goal of rehabilitation,” which is the basic “ideal” in the juvenile justice system.
Chief Justice John Roberts said he agreed that the teenager’s sentence was unconstitutional because the punishment didn’t fit the crime. But, he argued, sentencing a juvenile to life in prison is not in itself unconstitutional.
“Some crimes are so heinous, and some juvenile offenders so highly culpable, that a sentence of life without parole may be entirely justified under the Constitution,” Roberts said.
In a sharply worded dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the majority was wrong to set a rule banning such sentences. He argued for a more narrow interpretation of what is cruel and unusual punishment, leaving it up to state legislatures.
He pointed to the Founding Fathers and said the first Congress approved capital punishment for offenses including stealing “goods or merchandise to the value of fifty dollars” and “murder on the high seas.”
That illustration, though, undercut Thomas’ argument as the court wrestled with the issue of what it has called “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”
As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in response in a separate opinion: “Justice Thomas would apparently not rule out a death sentence for a $50 theft by a 7-year-old.”
“Society changes,” Stevens wrote. “Knowledge accumulates. We learn, sometimes, from our mistakes.”
The question society has to decide is whether it believes that juveniles can be rehabilitated. Some, like Thomas, don’t seem to believe it’s possible. We don’t believe in locking up children and letting them rot in jail, but we’re not naive enough to think that juveniles who commit vicious crimes are just wayward children.
The Supreme Court’s ruling tries to strike a fair balance. It gives juvenile offenders a chance to redeem themselves and seek parole, yet it also allows judges to make sure the punishment fits the crime.