There are still at least five U.S. Supreme Court justices who recognize the difference between adults and children. In a rejection of Florida's harsh sentencing practices, the court ruled Monday that juveniles no longer can be sentenced to life in prison with no chance of release for crimes in which nobody is killed. It correctly ruled that children don't have the same maturity as adults and that there can be hope for rehabilitation.
The ruling is particularly significant in Florida. The state has 77 of the 129 juvenile offenders nationwide who are serving life sentences for crimes not involving the taking of a life. All 77 will not be immediately released, but the state has work to do in helping these offenders gain the skills to potentially re-enter society.
The case Graham vs. Florida involved Terrance Graham, a Florida teen who committed armed burglary and was given probation. Six months later, Graham committed a home invasion and was sentenced to permanent life imprisonment for the probation violation. In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said evolving standards of decency have made such sentences in these types of cases intolerable under the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
A pinched dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas would have the nation's sense of decency frozen in the 18th century, when the Constitution was written. That would mean a 7-year-old could face the death penalty for a $50 theft, as Justice John Paul Stevens noted in an opinion concurring with the majority.
The key to the ruling was a recognition of the fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds. Children have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility and a heightened vulnerability to peer pressure, making them less culpable than adults, Kennedy found. And he said a categorical ban on permanent life sentences encourages young people who face long prison sentences to become responsible individuals. With the possibility of parole, he wrote, they may try to "demonstrate maturity and reform."
Florida now has to reform itself and quit denying counseling, education and rehabilitation programs to certain young prisoners with life sentences. Ian Manuel, for example, was 13 when he shot a woman during a robbery in Tampa in 1990 and received a no-parole life sentence. As reported by Times staff writer Meg Laughlin, Manuel has spent nearly all of his time in prison in solitary confinement for disciplinary infractions that include storing food and cursing. He has been denied an education and the development of any work skills. While in solitary, he could not have books or television.
Now prison officials are scrambling to try to undo the damage. But this kind of cruel treatment never should have been inflicted on someone so young. If Manuel and other juvenile lifers do earn parole — and that will be determined on a case-by-case basis — will they have the survival tools needed?
There still will be some teens who commit serious crimes who will be appropriately denied parole and serve life sentences. For others who have matured behind bars, there is hope. The Supreme Court opened the door to better possibilities and the creation of a more humane justice system.