This week’s Supreme Court ruling barring mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder was the sharpest indication of a shift in how the U.S. judicial system views young felons — from irredeemable predators to victims of circumstance with a potential for rehabilitation, says the New York Times. The change, evident in court decisions dating from in 2005, results from factors including a drop-off in the 1980s crack-related crime wave that led states to move violent juveniles into the adult system, an explosion in research on adolescent brain development, a desire to cut costs by reducing prison populations, and the frustration of juvenile judges with mandatory sentencing.
The developments seem to be opening a new chapter in juvenile justice only two decades after a markedly different approach took firm hold. “What we are seeing is a very stark and important rethinking of how we treat juvenile criminal offenders,” said Marsha Levick, who co-founded the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia in 1975. “For years we were trying to convince the courts that kids have constitutional rights just like adults. Now we realize that to ensure that kids are protected, we have to recognize that they are actually different from adults.” University of Chicago law Prof. Alison Siegler said the court had held that sentencing defendants to death required special care, and now is saying, “Not only is death different but youth is also different.”