At what age is a person sufficiently mature to receive a death sentence or a sentence of life in prison without parole for committing murder? Ask 10 people and you may get 10 different answers.
Ask the U.S. Constitution and you will get no specific answer.
Here is what the Fifth Amendment says:
“No person shall be ... deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law … .”
With due process of law, therefore, a person may indeed be executed or imprisoned — including permanently — for a given crime.
The Eighth Amendment adds this:
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
But since the Fifth Amendment already has provided for the possibility of death sentences and long-term imprisonment, it is plain that the framers of the Constitution did not consider those punishments inherently “cruel and unusual.”
What is equally clear is that, other than in federal cases, the Constitution leaves it to the states to decide, via their lawmakers, questions such as whether a person who commits murder before turning 18 can be executed or sentenced to life in prison. The Constitution simply does not offer a list of rules on those matters.
And so it is troubling that a narrow majority of the U.S. Supreme Court again has substituted its personal views on what constitutes appropriate punishment of juvenile offenders for the views of duly elected lawmakers.
The court, in a 5-4 decision, said states and the federal government may not impose automatic sentences of life in prison without parole on people who murder before reaching age 18.
“[S]uch a scheme poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment,” liberal Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the slim majority.
According to whom? According to what part of the Constitution?
According to nothing, really, except the majority’s notion of what “disproportionate punishment” is.
And for the record, we don’t necessarily disagree with their personal views on this matter. State and federal lawmakers may be well advised to maintain some discretion in the sentencing of juvenile murderers, who in some cases may not grasp the full horror and impact of their acts.
But those are decisions that are, constitutionally speaking, to be left to lawmakers, who are accountable to their constituents.
The high court previously also ruled out the death penalty for juvenile murderers and life without parole for youths who commit grievous crimes that do not actually leave someone dead.
Again, there might be reasonable arguments for taking those extra precautions when sentencing youthful offenders. But nothing in the Constitution confers on the Supreme Court the right to make those decisions — and to thwart the will of the people repeatedly.