Past Event

Redemption & Reform: Should Juveniles Get Life in Prison?

Café Society will meet at Intelligentsia Coffee on Monday, November 23Also, you can use the DIY Toolkit to host your own discussion about this week’s topic with friends, neighbors, coworkers, and others!

Two cases involving young men in Florida have sparked conversations regarding juvenile-justice reform. In both cases, young defendants were accused of violent, non-lethal acts. Both of these cases are being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, in a move some say is finally sparking debate about what they deem unconstitutional sentencing.

Warren Richey reports in The Christian Science Monitor, “The essence of their argument is that adolescents who commit crimes are still developing as human beings and their characters are still largely unformed. It is wrong to write them off as hopeless, to lock them up and throw away the key, these advocates say.”

According to Amnesty International, “The United States is the only country in the world that does not comply with the norm against imposing life-without-parole sentences on juveniles. Of the roughly 2,500 U.S. prisoners currently serving life sentences for crimes they committed as minors, 109 were sentenced for non-homicidal crimes, such as rape or serial robbery. Of these 25-hundred inmates, the court will decide the fate of Sullivan and Graham and that decision will impact those 109 juveniles.”

One of the cases that sparked this debate involves a young man who, in 2003, attempted to rob a restaurant. During the incident, the restaurant manger was severely hurt. The young man pleaded guilty to battery and attempted armed robbery and was sentenced to 12 months in county jail and three years probation, rather than a prison term. However, six months after he was released he was arrested again for participating in a series of armed home-invasion robberies. The judge revoked his probation and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. During sentencing the judge said, “It is apparent to the court that you have decided that this is the way you are going to live your life and that the only thing I can do now is to try to protect the community from your actions.”

Some victims’ rights organizations would agree with the judge and argue that victims are rarely considered when sentencing is handed down. A statement appearing on reads, “What continues to puzzle us is that there is a move amongst our activist brethren to push for re-sentencing when victims are not so sure that it is warranted.”  The Heritage Foundation also argues that “Life without parole for the very worst juvenile offenders is reasonable, constitutional, and (appropriately) rare.”

However, not everyone agrees that juveniles should be held to the same sentencing standards as adults. They believe that juveniles do have the ability to reform. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty was unconstitutional for juveniles. In his opinion on the case, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Juveniles are less culpable for their criminal activities than adults because they are less mature, less able to control impulses and resist peer pressure, and less able to appreciate the full magnitude of their wrongdoing. In addition, experts are unable to predict which juvenile offenders may successfully reform their lives once they are older. Under such circumstances, death is a disproportionate punishment for juveniles.”  Although Justice Kennedy was, in this quote, specifically referring to the death penalty, many argue that life without parole is similar to the imposition of a death sentence.

Is life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles crimes, cruel and unusual punishment and if so, why? In sentencing, should the courts distinguish between homicidal and non-homicidal crimes? In a democracy is there room for juveniles to redeem their actions? What kind of redemption or rehabilitation do you think is possible? Are juveniles better suited to redeem their actions than adults, and why or why not?  What role, if any, should the families of victims or the families of juvenile defendants play in sentencing?

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