Juvenile Life in Prison without Parole – to Be, or Not to Be Constitutional?

by Sally Colton

In light of recent articles posted on the blog, I thought that I would join in the theme and write on another important topic that is currently affecting our criminal system—sentencing juveniles to life terms in prison without the possibility of parole for committing homicide offenses.

Next Tuesday, March 20, the Supreme Court will finally have to decide whether this punishment is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.

There have been several cases already where the Court has gotten close to this issue, but has not formally addressed it.

In Roper v. Simmons, the Court considered whether a juvenile should be sentenced to the death penalty for a homicide offense. The juvenile in this case plotted to murder a woman, broke into her house and killer her, then dumped her over a bridge. While the offense was no doubt heinous, the Court found that the death penalty for juveniles was too harsh under the Eighth Amendment, regardless of the crime they committed.

Just a few years later in Graham v. Florida, the Court considered whether a juvenile should be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a non-homicide offense. Basically, the juvenile went on a burglary spree while he was on parole. Because Florida had harsh penalties for re-offenders, the youth faced a lengthy sentence—that’s right—life in prison without parole.  Relying on a number of factors, including the fact that juveniles don’t have fully formed mental capacities when it comes to making reasoned decisions (surprised?), the Court held that for non-homicide crimes, life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles is unconstitutional.

On Tuesday, the Court will review two different cases.  In one case, a 14-year-old beat the snot out of his neighbor and set his neighbor’s trailer on fire to burn the evidence. In the other case, a 14-year-old joined a couple of friends in a burglary, which turned into a homicide when one friend shot a video clerk in the face.

First of all, I’m slightly concerned that our “evolved” society has gotten this violent and crazy. What on earth happened to these kids that made them think that murdering people was a way to solve their problems? I feel just sick for them, and I’m disgusted at the lowlifes that brought them into this world and trained them to be reckless dangers to society.

Getting that vent out of the way, should the Supreme Court allow juveniles to be sentenced to life in prison without parole? It’s a tough question. We don’t want to send messages that crimes like these are okay, but at the same time, don’t juveniles have a higher capacity to reform? Do we want to allow sentences for juveniles that basically take away their lives by banishing them to prison forever? Don’t we want to believe that everyone has the right to change?

I guess on Tuesday we’ll see.

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