Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The half-full (or half-empty) glass

On Monday the Supreme Court, in Miller v. Alabama (combined with Jackson v. Hobbs) put the kibosh on mandatory life in prison without parole for juvenile offenders. According to the Nine in Robes, sentencing a juvenile to LWOP is a violation of the 8th Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The Court did not declare that sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without parole was a Constitutional violation. Courts are still free to tell a teenager that his or her life isn't worth anything. The states, however, cannot mandate LWOP for a juvenile.

It's the classic six of one, half a dozen of the other decision. The ruling does not mean that the more than 2500 men and women in prison who were sentenced to LWOP under mandatory sentencing laws get to go home. Nor does it mean their cases are remanded for sentencing. It just means that they will find themselves eligible for parole at some point in the future.

Let's face it, there are some kids out there who have done some pretty heinous things to get themselves locked up for life in the Big House. But I don't see how a rational person could think that a 14- or 15-year-old fully understands the consequences of his actions in the same way that a 25- or 26-year-old would. The brain of a 15-year-old is not fully developed - that doesn't happen until sometime in the mid-20's.

It's not right to condemn a teenager to death in prison for something he did while his brain was still forming. We wouldn't think of locking up an 8-year-old for life. Would anyone consider locking up a 12-year-old for life?

Just think back to when you were in high school. Now think of all the incredibly dumb things you did at that point in your life. While you may not have taken the life of another, I'm certain there are some things you did that you'd just as soon no one else ever find out about.

There's a reason we don't allow teens to drink alcohol. There's a reason we don't allow 16-year-olds to vote or join the military. There's a reason we don't let 13-year-olds drive cars.

The United States is one of the only nations on this earth that locks up juveniles in prison. We are certainly the only nation that would throw a 14-year-old in a prison and tell him he will die behind bars. Why? Why do we value the lives of our children so little? Why are we so willing to cut funding for education whenever the state encounters a budget shortfall?

We're the adults here. We're the ones making the decisions that affect the lives of our children. We're the ones who ought to be setting an example of how to steward in the next generation. We're the ones who are supposed to have the wisdom and judgment to make the decisions that affect us all. But when our politicians are willing to sacrifice the lives of teenagers in order to curry favor with right-wing voters, what does it say for the rest of us?

The Supreme Court didn't go nearly far enough in this opinion. There are no circumstances that should ever warrant telling a child he's worthless and will die in prison. The life of a teenager is still redeemable - even if his actions are unspeakable. And, as I've stated many times before when discussing the death penalty - locking up a kid forever is not going to undo what he did nor is it going to bring anyone back to life.

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