A growing number of states are rethinking the wisdom of sentencing teenagers to life in prison, says the National Law Journal. Two states have recently passed — and at least 11 states are considering — legislation that would end life sentences for those under 18 years old or, more generally, restrict charging juveniles as adults. In two Florida cases argued in November, the Supreme Court is considering whether a life sentence without parole for juveniles who have committed crimes other than murder violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The willingness of some state legislators to side with criminal defense lawyers against prosecutors is a change. A key reason is new scientific evidence that adolescents are not capable of weighing their actions like adults. The Campaign for Youth Justice estimates that 200,000 U.S. youth are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults every year. There are 45 states that allow juvenile judges to transfer a case to adult court, 15 states that give prosecutors the discretion to try a youth as an adult and 15 states that require juvenile court judges to transfer a case to adult court for certain offenses, based on the offender’s age or prior record. James Reams, president-elect of the National District Attorneys Association, says reform advocates paint a false picture of those adolescents who receive life sentences. It’s not the “kids selling pot” and other petty criminals, but those committing heinous crimes such as thrill-kill murders or “pretty horrific” rapes, he says, adding that teens put away for life are those whom “the juvenile system is giving up on.”