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Juvenile offenders and sentences of life without parole

We have previously written about the problems plaguing the criminal justice system, particularly in its treatment of minors. While low-level juvenile crimes are typically prosecuted through the juvenile justice system, minors who commit serious and violent offenses are often tried as adults.

This is problematic for two reasons. First, it assumes that culpability for a crime is based on the crime itself and not on the age/maturity of the offender. The second problem is that being tried as an adult often means being sentenced as one as well. Adult sentences are often inappropriate because they do not account for a juvenile's capacity for reform upon reaching full maturity.

The U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on this issue twice in recent years. The first time was in 2010, when the Court held that juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes cannot be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. This would be considered cruel and unusual punishment and is therefore unconstitutional.

In 2012, the Court revisited this issue. This time, justices held that juveniles convicted of murder cannot receive an automatic sentence of life without parole. If such a sentence is imposed, it must only be issued after careful consideration of mitigating factors, including the offender's personal history.

Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court considered these U.S. Supreme Court rulings when throwing out the sentence of an offender convicted of attempted murder when he was just 14 years old.

The defendant had been sentenced to 70 years in prison without parole. While technically not a life sentence in theory, this is clearly a de facto life sentence. The state Supreme Court held that the sentence “is unconstitutional because it fails to provide him with a meaningful opportunity for early release based upon a demonstration of his maturity and rehabilitation.”

Because the sentence was thrown out, the defendant will spend at least 25 years in prison (based on new guidelines) but may be eligible for parole or release after that.

If we accept the premise that minors are less culpable due to their age and immaturity, we must be prepared to tailor our criminal justice system accordingly. And if we accept the premise that young offenders are more capable of reform than adults are, we must change our sentencing practices accordingly.

Source: The New York Times, "Florida Justices Reject 70-Year Sentence for Juvenile, Likening It to Life Term," Erik Eckholm, March 20, 2015

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