The Supreme Court's decision to strike down mandatory sentences of life imprisonment without parole for juveniles convicted of murder, including the cases of Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, marks a significant step in bringing our nation closer in line to the practice of civilized nations across the globe.
However there is still more progress to be made.
Jackson and Miller, both 14 at the time of their sentencing, each received mandatory life without parole terms for murder. In 1999, Jackson was involved in a robbery of a video store that turned deadly when one of his accomplices shot and killed the store's clerk. In 2003, Miller and another boy bludgeoned their neighbor, then set his house on fire and left him to die.
Murder is a horrendous crime and those who commit murder must be punished. But sentencing children under the age of 18 to life in prison without the hope of parole is in direct conflict with scientific evidence showing they do not have the capacity to fully understand the consequences of their actions.
The brains of 14-year-olds like Jackson and Miller are simply not fully developed. With age comes maturity and a more highly developed sense of responsibility for one's actions. For children whose lives and values have been shaped by neglect and abuse, time and caring can show that human life has value and can teach a different way of seeing and being in the world.
According to the Child Welfare League of America, of the 154 member countries of the United Nations, only the U.S. and Somalia have not yet ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention provides that neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release should be imposed on people who committed crimes while younger than 18.
Most countries have abandoned draconian practices like the death penalty and sentencing children to life without parole. The U.S.—despite being one of the most progressive and forward thinking nations on so many levels—is in the dark ages in our willingness to punish children with the harshest possible sentencing.
The Court's decision now gives judges the discretion to consider a child's past in deciding his/her future.
Many juvenile offenders come from profoundly damaging and violent upbringings. In Miller v. Alabama, the evidence presented in court showed that Evan Miller was raised by a drug-addicted mother and an abusive father. He was in and out of foster care and had attempted suicide four times beginning at six-years-old. Before Miller committed the homicide, he had had only minimal contact with the law. He was a victim of repeated violent abuse during his childhood.
While past history of trauma does not excuse taking someone's life, such a violent and troubled past should be considered by a judge when imposing a sentence on a child like Miller.
As the President and CEO of The Fortune Society, I have seen first-hand the damage done to our clients by the emotional, physical and sexual abuse they endured as children.
Many have “done unto others” as has been done to them, and have been punished for their actions. But with counseling, programs, services and education, we see that people who first have been victims and then victimizers can break out of this savage circle and not pass such pain further along.
Fortune works with our clients on a long term basis, showing them how to respect and care for others and for themselves. When given the necessary resources and support, people can change—even those who committed the most heinous crimes.
Yes, individuals who commit crimes should be punished; but we also must make room for rehabilitation. And we must recognize and work to prevent the terrible individual and societal consequences that follow when we allow children to be abused and discarded.
While this latest ruling is significant, we still need to do more. In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to impose capital punishment for crimes committed while under the age of 18, citing a body of scientific evidence proving that juveniles have a lack of maturity and sense of responsibility compared to adults.
In 2010, in Graham v. Florida, the Court went one step further by ruling that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for non-homicide offenses. Now, the Court must build on those two rulings, and this latest ruling, by declaring it unconstitutional to impose a sentence of life without parole for juveniles under 18-years-old.
A sentence of life without parole is in some ways almost as bad as the death penalty. It leaves no room for recognition of change or redemption, and both can and do occur while people are incarcerated.
At Fortune, we see such change happen all the time.
Some of the most powerful contributors to their families and society are men and women who have served decades for terrible crimes, but are very different from the angry and damaged people they were at time of sentence.
As a nation, we are over-using the sentence of life without parole for adults.
Our prisons are increasingly becoming nursing homes for seniors who no longer pose risk to society, but are being held through sickness and senility at enormous and unnecessary human and financial cost.
Even more than adults, children have the ability to change.
Life without parole for a crime committed by a child—no matter how terrible the crime—should not be an acceptable sentence in our country.
The Supreme Court should be applauded for its decision that such a sentence cannot be mandatory. And it should take the next necessary step to ban such sentences for children as cruel and unusual punishment.
JoAnne Page is President and CEO of The Fortune Society. She welcomes comments from readers.