1. Opinion

Measuring justice for the young

Published Jun. 26, 2012

Any parent knows that children are different from adults. They lack the same level of judgment and impulse control, and can easily fall subject to the sway of adults and peers. Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling was the latest in a series of fair-minded decisions taking note of these differences and adjusting criminal sentencing law. The ruling bars states such as Florida from imposing mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles convicted of homicide. The ruling means judges' hands will no longer be tied and they can mete out just sentences with full consideration of the accused's age. An estimated 225 convicted murderers in Florida who committed their crimes as children could seek reconsideration of their sentences. But that inconvenience is worth the benefit of moving the state's criminal justice system toward more sound and proportional sentences for child offenders.

The 5-4 ruling split along the court's traditional ideological lines, with moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy joining the four-justice liberal bloc. The decision involved two cases in which the perpetrators were only 14 years old when the homicides occurred. In one case, Evan Miller beat an Alabama man with a baseball bat. The man later died of his injuries and smoke inhalation from a fire Miller helped set. Miller had an abusive childhood, spent time in foster care and made four suicide attempts, the first at age 6. The other case involved Kuntrell Jackson, who participated in an armed robbery of an Arkansas video store. One of his associates shot and killed a clerk and Jackson was convicted of felony murder for being part of the robbery.

Both cases called out for some consideration of the boys' ages and circumstances before sentencing them to spend the remainder of their days in a prison cell. But the indifference of mandatory sentencing leaves no room for reasonable discretion. Florida adopted mandatory life sentences for first-degree murder in 1994. Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, meticulously laid out the commonsense and scientific reasons why juveniles should be treated differently. She noted the hallmarks of childhood are "immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences." She said children cannot usually extricate themselves from their home environment "no matter how brutal or dysfunctional," and yet over time they are more likely to be redeemed. Her opinion closely tracked earlier high court rulings. They included a 2010 case from Jacksonville that ended the sentencing of minors to life without the possibility of parole in nonhomicide cases. Florida abolished parole in 1983 and has had to resentence many of the 115 defendants affected. In another ruling in 2005, the court barred the death penalty for murderers under 18.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi's office expressed disappointment with the ruling, failing to recognize the measure of justice it provides. Letting judges take youth into account when sentencing for homicide won't necessarily mean lighter sentences, but they will be possible when warranted.


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