Juvenile Justice in America: We Can Do Better

The juvenile court was invented in Illinois in 1899. Soon thereafter, recognizing that youthful offenders often had diminished culpability and unique potential for rehabilitation, every state in the Union created its own juvenile court system. Developed nations around the world emulated the American model of juvenile justice.

Today the United States is an international outlier in the severity of its juvenile sentencing practices. Until 2005, the United States was the only developed country that subjected children to the death penalty, and today we are the only nation that employs juvenile life without parole. The Pope, U.N. officials and human rights organizations have universally condemned the way the American criminal justice system treats children — the most vulnerable members of society.

In recent years, there has been some improvement due to new (and overdue) Eighth Amendment rulings from the United States Supreme Court. In Graham v. Florida(2010) and Miller v. Alabama (2012), the Supreme Court significantly curtailed the extent to which states may employ juvenile life without parole.

Since those decisions, Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming have abolished the practice of juvenile life without parole, while other states have precluded the sentence for certain categories of juveniles. West Virginia’s legislation in response to Graham and Miller rethinks juvenile sentencing altogether, and California has passed a law providing a new parole protocol for youth serving extreme sentences. The Supreme Court of Florida, considered to be among the most punitive of all states, recently decided a handful of juvenile sentencing cases and held in favor of the juvenile petitioner in each instance. The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly determined that children are different in the eyes of the Constitution; brain science tells us that children are less culpable and more amenable to rehabilitation; and some states are enacting laws that properly reflect both realities.

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By Cara H. Drinan April 13th 2015