A Lifeline for Youthful Murderers

A few years ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that under the 8th Amendment (forbidding “cruel and unusual punishment”), juvenile offenders (people who were minors when they committed the crime subjecting them to the death penalty) could not be executed.

In the June 2012 cases of Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, the Court by a 5-4 vote extended the rule by holding that the 8th Amendment is also violated if juvenile offenders are automatically given an LWOP sentence (life without possibility of parole) under statutes that provide for “automatic LWOP.” The ruling allows “individualized” LWOP sentencing of juveniles based on the circumstances of individual cases, so juveniles may receive LWOP sentences in the future.

Murders committed by juveniles are often as horrific as those committed by adults, and their age in no way lessens the effects of their crimes on victims’ family members and friends. Nevertheless, automatic LWOP sentences for juveniles seems unfair. As the majority argued, juveniles have less impulse control than adults, and they have had less time than adults to escape the impact of factors that are often assiciated with violent crimes, such as poverty and and child abuse.

Even the worst juvenile offenders have the capacity to lift the human spirit and offer hope if, perhaps over the course of a few decades of imprisonment, they are able to change their lives so positively that they are fit to live decent and productive lives. The limited lifeline that the Supreme Court offered in these two cases is a worthy step in the right direction.