Thursday, November 12, 2009

Life Imprisonment Without Parole for Minors

On Monday, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments about whether sentencing minors to lifetime imprisonment without the possibility of parole violates the 8th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Two men who were convicted in Florida as minors argued that such a punishment is cruel and unusual.

Attorneys, in response to Justice Roberts’ inquiry as to where the 8th Amendment distinguishes based on age, argued that the Court in 2005 ruled it unconstitutional for any person under the age of 18 to be executed under the death penalty. Roberts seemed unconvinced however, answering that “death is different”. Still, those claiming violations of the 8th Amendment argued that the 2005 ruling not only ruled that “death is different”, but that minors are different as well.

Justice Kennedy echoed Justice Roberts concern in asking, “Why does a juvenile have a constitutional right to hope, but an adult does not?" To this, attorneys claimed that minors are not yet fully developed, and that they still have a chance to reform. Attorneys claimed that these minors should not be held to the same level of culpability as adults.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr., moving past the distinguishing characteristics of minors, claimed that this punishment was about retribution for serious crimes. Whether these crimes are perpetrated by adults or minors, the Justices claimed that society has a right to justice. Justice Alito went on to recall a number of offenses committed by minors that were "so horrible that [he] couldn't have imagined them if [he] hadn't actually seen them." He claims that such crimes should not be excused or the seriousness diminished, as well as the punishment, just because they were committed by minors.

The Justices still seem divided on this issue, making it all the more uncertain of the final outcome. Justice Ginsberg seems to agree with the attorneys representing the fact that minors are still developing and have a more likely chance to reform; Justice Sotomayor seemed troubled by the fact that there is no minimum age at which a minor could be imprisoned for life without an opportunity for parole.

As Justice Roberts pointed out in the case, “death is different”. But to imprison these people from the age of minority for the rest of their life with no chance of parole may be viewed as a quasi-death. To imprison these minors in such a way gives them no chance for a true future and also no reason to reform. Without the hope of an opportunity to one day be released, there is nothing for these minors to look or forward to or work towards.

Justices Scalia and Alito are also correct in that a large part of the justice system is about retribution for heinous crimes. Justice is one of the primary goals of our judicial system. However, one of the primary goals of the penal system is for reform. Minors imprisoned at the age of 13 are still developing and have a chance to reform; however, once again, without an opportunity for parole, they have no reason to seek reform, or even if they do they will achieve no benefit (other than internal) from such reformation. An opportunity for parole for these minors would provide them with hope, while still allowing a board to determine whether they have actually been reformed or not. By giving them this opportunity, it does not guarantee they will be paroled, but will reward those who truly have changed.

For the full article from the Washington Post, click here.

For more information on Sullivan v. Florida, click here.

For more information on Graham v. Florida, click here

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