WASHINGTON, May 18, 2014 — Two teenagers shot and killed a college baseball player out for a jog in Oklahoma last August. They explained they committed the murder because they were just bored.
Juveniles who commit crimes have legal protections that include lighter sentencing than adults would receive in the same circumstances. Discussions continue about the appropriateness of that leniency each time a horrible crime is committed by a teen.
The Supreme Court has trended toward the more lenient position, and most recently, California’s high court ruled in the same direction.
In 2005, in the case of Roper v. Simmons, the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty for those under 18 was cruel and unusual punishment and thus unconstitutional. Life in prison, without parole, thus became the most significant punishment a juvenile could suffer for committing any crime.
In 2012, the Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles also violated the 8th Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The thinking was simply that juveniles are different than adults. The Justices appreciated that a juvenile’s brain is not fully developed.
The ruling means, for juveniles, that a judge cannot simply look at the mandatory sentence for a given crime and impose it; rather, when sentencing, judges must look at and consider that a younger person is different than an adult.
“Youth have less responsibility for their actions than adults and greater prospects for reform,” the court concluded.
Reformers of juvenile sentencing say that a younger person’s brain is not fully developed. They are correct.
Peter A. Weir, a former judge and now a prosecutor in Colorado, offered a tougher view in the November 13, 2013 Denver Post. He said that some juvenile offenders commit crimes so serious and so heinous that public safety mandates — and justice demands — full accountability in our criminal justice system.
Weir counters the argument of those who say this is unfair and unjust: “reform experts tell us that three-quarters of adolescents lack the decision-making abilities of adults, thus one-quarter of juveniles can function in an adult manner.” Weir further notes that experts acknowledge that they cannot apply general concepts of a developing brain to the activities of any specific person.
The Colorado case that led Weir to his comments involved a young man just shy of his eighteenth birthday. The young man hunted, kidnapped and killed a ten-year-old girl. Weir says the murder was thoughtful, deliberate and cunning in its planning and execution. The “juvenile” was sentenced to life in prison plus 86 years.
Last month, California’s Supreme Court overturned a longstanding punishment “presumption” that would impose life without parole for juveniles convicted of certain murders.
California’s court ruled that trial courts “must consider all relevant evidence bearing on the distinctive attributes of youth, including hallmark features of adolescence such as immaturity, impulsivity, and a failure to appreciate risks and consequences.”
The ruling forces judges to consider those factors before imposing the harshest of sentences on youth.
Elizabeth Calvin, a senior advocate for children’s rights at Human Rights Watch, said about the California ruling:
“The court has recognized today what every parent knows – kids are different and are capable of tremendous growth and transformation. Now, it is up to judges and state legislators to ensure that all child offenders have a meaningful chance to work toward rehabilitation, to periodically demonstrate their achievements, and, if merited, to earn their release from prison.”
Richard Bonnie of the University of Virginia School of Law and Elizabeth Scott of the Columbia Law School, in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, argue that “new scientific insights can and should guide legal decision making about teens as a group, but that it’s far too early to look for scientific assistance in individual judgments”.
“One problem is that law and science view human development quite differently.” As Bonnie and Scott note, “the law basically divides people into minors — vulnerable and incompetent–and adults, who are autonomous and responsible. But psychological science has a more nuanced view of adolescence as a separate stage, between childhood and adulthood.”
They say that this view “is supported by neuroscience, which shows that the frontal cortex — the seat of judgment, self-control, and sensible planning — matures very gradually into early adulthood. It is out of sync with the early development of the emotional brain, and as a result there is a gap between early sensation seeking and later self-discipline.”
In 2012, a theory of the juvenile mind was offered from the world of psychological science, furthering the “there is a difference” theme. Jean-Louis van Gelder, of the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement, argues that juveniles suffer from conspicuous shortsightedness. He says that young people appear overly focused on immediate rewards such as money, sex, stimulation, and that they have little regard for potential later consequences. Van Gelder says this seems obvious in a way, and that is why juveniles commit crimes and end up in jail.
Van Gelder asked “why?” and decided to test for the concept that juveniles suffer from a specific cognitive deficit, one that makes it very difficult for them to imagine their future selves. He ran multiple experiments. He concluded that “the vividness of the future self is the key to making prudent decisions in the here and now — and diminishing criminal propensity”.
Understanding criminal mentality is the subject of countless studies, books, and seemingly endless analysis by scientists, criminologists, psychologists, legal scholars and others concerned with decreasing crime. Whatever the reason for criminal behavior, it is clear that a blind punishment rule that cannot address individual circumstances and differences between a juvenile and an adult is inappropriate.
Parents catch their kids, ages 17 and 11, doing the same “bad” thing. Older kid gets punished harsher. There is a need to consider everything when punishing someone.
A juvenile criminal two months shy of age 18 should not necessarily be treated with lenience. Mr. Weir, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the California Supreme Court are all correct.
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website.
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