published Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Juveniles and justice

A divided Supreme Court ruled last week that juveniles who are convicted of crimes in which no one is killed should not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The 6-3 decision is both thoughtful and humane. It properly balances the demands of the law with the emerging understanding of how the human brain develops and the consequences that has on individual behavior.

Though the decision on a Florida case directly affects less than 150 individuals in the jurisdictions -- 37 states, the District of Columbia and the federal courts -- that currently permit life sentences for juveniles, it is nevertheless an important and progressive ruling that will have a lasting impact. It continues the high court's willingness to closely examine what constitutes cruel and inhuman punishment -- especially as it relates to youngsters. -- and order changes that reflect the beliefs of contemporary society.

Previously, the court had banned capital punishment for offenders who were under 18 when their crimes were committed and for children and adults who are mentally retarded. Last week's ruling was a natural and acceptable extension of those decisions.

The court's majority obviously accepts scientific research that indicates that the brains of youngsters do not fully develop until early adulthood. Consequently, youngsters have less understanding about the meaning and consequences of their actions and thus are less likely than adults to make sound decisions. That does not mean a juvenile offender should be excused from the penalties associated with a crime.

It does mean that the court recognizes the possibility that youngsters -- whose brains are still developing -- might be more likely candidates for rehabilitation that adults. The court ruling opens the door for youngsters currently serving life-without-parole sentences to make a case that they have been rehabilitated if they hope to obtain eventual release from prison.

Inmates covered by last week's ruling aren't guaranteed anything. Each one seeking a reduction in sentence or other relief still will have to make their case while still in prison. That permits decision-making on a case-by-case basis. That's an eminently fair requirement.

It should be noted, too, that the ruling applies specifically to youngsters involved in crimes in which no one was killed. It excludes the approximately 2,000 inmates around the nation currently serving life sentences for homicides committed while they were juveniles. Given the continuing evolution of the law, the high court likely will be asked to extend last week's ruling to that class of felons. It's difficult to predict how the court will rule in that instance.

Last week's decision acknowledges the United States' "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." It also aligns U.S. standards for juvenile justice more closely to those of nations in much of the rest of the world where the differences between juvenile and adult behavior and the consequences of it have long been recognized.

The court's ruling does not mean that hordes of dangerous juvenile offenders will now flood the nation's cities. It does recognize that some individuals who commit crimes at a young age can change and that a prison term that once seemed reasonable might become "cruel and unusual" in the passage of time. If that is the case, it is possible hat a juvenile felon could become a law-abiding adult.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said, "A state need not guarantee the offender eventual release, but if it imposes the sentence of life, it must provide him or her with some realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of that term." The Supreme Court has done so.

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