Juvenile Justice Continues to Mature

In 2005, the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Roper v. Simmons that the 8th Amendment (barring “cruel and unusual punishment”) meant that juvenile juvenile offenders could not be executed for their crimes. And in Graham v. Florida (2102), the Court extended this ruling to forbid LWOP (“life without possibility of parole”) sentences for juvenile offenders convicted of non-homicides.

Lurking behind these rulings is a sense that juvenile offenders may not be fully aware of the seriousness of their crimes, no matter how heinous they may be. Moreover, in a country that prides itself on second chances and the possibility of redemption, incarcerating people forever for a crime they committed when they weren’t old enough to vote seems unduly harsh and unforgiving as well as incredibly expensive.

In the 2012 case of People v. Caballero, the California Supreme Court extended the reasoning of Graham to a case in which a juvenile convicted of attempted murder was ineligible for parole until he had served 110 years. The California court decided that a minimum sentence of 110 years is the functional equivalent of a mandatory life sentence. The ruling allows prisoners to file writs of habeas corpus in trial courts, asking judges to consider their suitability for parole based on their “demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

California Governor Jerry Brown extended this trend when he signed new legislation allowing for the possibility of parole to juveniles who had been convicted of murder and given no-parole sentences. Under the new law, which takes effect in 2013, offenders must serve a minimum of 15 years in prison and their record while in prison must demonstrate remorse and steps towards rehabilitation. (The new law does not apply to those offenders who tortured their victims or killed a police officer.)

None of these changes constitutes an automatic ticket to freedom. But they do offer hope to juvenile offenders, and motivation to work on themselves while they are in prison.