Juveniles and Justices



Science has shown something that parents have long known — the juvenile brain is not fully formed. Teens engage in reckless and often abusive behavior without clearly understanding the consequences.

Many such teens grow up into responsible, caring and successful adults who think back to those years and wonder how they managed to avoid permanently harming themselves or someone else. Even those who do harm others as children and teens may change into responsible adults.

Thus, it seems barbaric to us, in general, for any state to put someone behind bars for life, without the hope for parole, for something he did as a juvenile, before his brain had matured.

But does that rise to “cruel and unusual punishment” requiring the federal government to step in and ban the practice as unconstitutional? That is a matter before the U.S. Supreme Court, and it is not an easy call.

The court is focusing on the cases of two Florida men serving life in prison. One raped an elderly woman when he was 13. The other was a repeat offender who liked to engage in armed robbery. It is rare that teens who do not kill receive life sentences. We would argue that such sentences are unjust.

But does the federal government, under the U.S. Constitution, have the right to step in and substitute its judgment for state courts in such cases? We believe that it does not.

States, applying the checks and balances in their judicial systems, should decide whether such endless jail terms apply to teens who commit horrific crimes. A “one size fits all,” outright federal ban on all such jail terms might in some admittedly rare cases leave citizens with less protection than they should have.

But citizens in all states should understand the nature of the teen mind, and the greater potential for redemption of the young. States should look for ways to redeem juvenile offenders and revisit the cases of those who have done horrendous wrongs. None of this is easy, and it often involves agonizing judgment calls.

A wave of the hand from the highest court might be easier, but justice is not always quite so clear.