Does a child have the maturity and culpability to deserve the harshest criminal sentences imposed on adults? Two years ago the U.S. Supreme Court said no and held that a mandatory life without parole sentence for those at the time of their crimes is unconstitutional. Some states, however, continue to say yes.
Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller were 14 when they committed crimes that led to first-degree murder convictions. Jackson was involved in a robbery where a woman was killed by another youth, and Miller committed murder by arson. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment without parole and appealed their cases up to the U.S. Supreme Court. In addition to ordering that their sentences be re-visited to consider age as a mitigating circumstance, the Court cited studies concluding that only a relatively small proportion of adolescents who engage in illegal activity develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior. Furthermore, the following attributes in children cannot justify mandatory receipt of life imprisonment imposed on adults:
-Diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform
-Lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility
-Vulnerability to negative influences and outside pressures
-Limited control over their environment
-Lack of ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings
While states argued that age is considered when determining whether to try a child as an adult, the Court stated that such consideration should also be included in determining sentencing. It concluded its decision holding that a sentence of life imprisonment without parole on a child should be uncommon.
At the time of the decision, 28 states had laws mandating life imprisonment without parole for certain crimes regardless of age. Since the decision, however, not all states have changed their laws or the premise that even a child should be incarcerated for the remainder of his or her life for certain heinous crimes. For example Michigan gives judges the choice of imposing a sentence of up to 60 years in prison. To spend the majority of an adult life in prison and be released at 70 years of age or older, where many people are retiring from the workforce, is barely short of a life sentence.
Many of the 2,500 prisoners serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed before the age of 18 at the time of the Supreme Court’s decision have yet to have their sentences reduced. The Court required only that age be considered as a mitigating factor. It did not require states to abolish the life sentence for every juvenile. Last month the Illinois Supreme Court just decided to have the decision applied retroactively to prisoners sentenced prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision. Therefore it is yet to be determined whether the state, after considering the age of the offender, would reduce the life sentence.
Given the Supreme Court’s position that it is difficult to distinguish at an early age between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects immaturity and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption, is it right to have a child spend most of his or her adult life incarcerated for a murder conviction? Evan Miller, the subject of the Court’s decision, not only beat a 52 year old man with his fists and a baseball bat, but he also set him on fire to conceal his crime. Yet the Court showed mercy because of his age and a lack of parental guidance. Should the rest of the nation follow suit?