The topic of juvenile offender sentencing has received national attention recently when the United States Supreme Court held arguments regarding the prospect of limiting the harshest of these juvenile punishments. This is particularly important to those in Pennsylvania, considering the state has the largest concentration of juvenile offenders who have been sentenced to life without parole in the nation. The eventual decision has implications that extend to not only juvenile offenders, but also those that provide legal counsel to them.
On March 20, 2012, the Court heard oral arguments in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, two cases involving lifers who were fourteen when they committed murder. A majority of the justices seemed ready to move this argument forward, but it is still unclear how far they are willing to go regarding setting limits of such punishments.
This revisiting of juvenile laws could have a profound effect on the approximately 470 prisoners in Pennsylvania serving life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers. In forty years, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has gone from holding a small handful of juvenile lifers with no possibility of release to holding the highest number in the country. Nationwide, the number stands at around 2,589. A reversal of current laws will allow for many of these inmates to be entitled to a resentencing hearing.
Even with having committed horrendous crimes, the prospect of a lifetime in prison for a juvenile, who may or may not have understood the severity of his/her actions, seems to be unjust and antithetical to the intentions of our justice system. One example is that of a Pennsylvania juvenile, who at fourteen years-old, set fire to the house of friends whose mom would not let them play with her, killing two boys in the process. Homicide may not have been the intention, but the crime was so serious that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania tried her as an adult, where her charges would come with mandatory sentencing. She was eventually found guilty of arson, two counts of second-degree murder and causing or risking a catastrophe. That was in 1976, and the offender is still in prison to this day for the crimes she committed at fourteen years old.
Had the young fourteen year-old been facing the death penalty, she would have had the right to introduce mitigating evidence, according to a Supreme Court ruling the previous year, striking down mandatory death sentences as cruel and unusual punishment. However, no such right is given to defendants facing mandatory life sentences. In Pennsylvania, this meant that her age, severe mental problems, history of abuse and neglect, and, most critically, rehabilitative potential were not up for discussion.
At the heart of the Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs defense is the argument that regardless of the crime, fourteen is too young to be discarded as beyond help. Teenagers are impulsive, prone to risky actions and highly vulnerable to peer pressure, and the younger ones are still quite far from mental maturity. “At fourteen,” the Miller appeal argues, “the major transformation in brain structure that will result in a sophisticated system of circuitry between the frontal lobe and the rest of the brain, enabling adults to exercise cognitive control over their behavior, is barely underway.”
With this scientific understanding of the situation, the Supreme Court has made strides. In the recent hearings, the majority opinion in both cases were written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who said teenagers deserved more lenient treatment than adults because they are immature, impulsive, susceptible to peer pressure and able to change for the better over time. Bryan A. Stevenson, a lawyer with the Equal Justice Initiative, which represented both defendants in Tuesday’s arguments, said that logic should apply in at least some cases involving killings.
The United States Supreme Court should take the pragmatic and fair stance of not only prohibiting sentences of life without parole for offenders younger than fifteen, but barring the punishment for all juvenile offenders. This would allow both the juvenile in question and their juvenile criminal defense attorney to find a solution that allows for the offender an opportunity to prove that he/she may eventually be deemed fit to re-enter society, rather than just tossed in jail for life.