"The Roberts Court’s Liberal Turn on Juvenile Justice," is David S. Tanehaus' OpEd in the New York Times. He's the author of The Constitutional Rights of Children: In re Gault and Juvenile Justice., and teaches law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
THE Supreme Court’s decision this week to ban mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for offenders younger than 18 is an emphatic rejection of the “get tough” juvenile justice policies of the 1980s and 1990s, which punished children as if they were adults. Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan’s clear statement not only recognized the political and biological principle that children are different from adults but at last also inscribed it into constitutional law.
Treating children differently from adults may be a radical idea, but it’s also an old one, predating the American Revolution. The political philosopher John Locke argued that children’s lack of reasoning capacity, which disqualified them from participating in government, also made them less culpable for their criminal acts. By the turn of the 20th century, progressive child advocates embedded the principle that children are different from adults — and thus require individualized handling of their cases — into the foundation of the world’s first juvenile courts.
Today, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have juvenile justice systems that divert youthful offenders from the criminal justice system at large. In the 1980s and 1990s, though, in response to mounting concerns about juvenile crime, many states changed their laws to give prosecutors, instead of juvenile court judges, the authority to determine which court system would handle a particular child’s case. As a result, prosecutors now make the vast majority of decisions to transfer juveniles to criminal court. This dramatic departure from past practices threatened to undermine the longstanding principle that children’s cases should not be handled like those of adults. By the late ’90s, some critics even called for the abolition of the juvenile court.
"Sentencing policy," is the title of this week's Democracy in America column at the Economist.
AMERICA locks up too many people for too many things for too long, largely due to the prevalence of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. These laws have eroded judicial discretion, rigged America's criminal-justice system in the prosecution's favour and produced wildly unjust results. Opponents of mandatory-minimums are no doubt cheering the Supreme Court's ruling last week, in Miller v Alabama, that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of capital murder violate the eighth amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments. This ruling will have significant effects: some 28 states, and the federal government, have such statutes on the books; nearly 2,600 juveniles are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole; most of those sentences were mandatory. The court split along partisan lines, with Justice Kennedy siding with the liberal quartet.
Earlier coverage of Miller v. Alabama begins at the link.