Saved by Science? Questioning Mandatory Life without Parole for Juveniles
Recently, scientists have discovered that the brain does not fully mature until the early 20s, and the last to mature are the areas responsible for controlling impulses and considering the consequences of one’s actions. In fact, there is evidence suggesting that the process of brain development is gradual and based on an individual rate of development, making an official age separating juveniles from adults arbitrary, at best.
Multiple studies of the human brain show that the cerebral cortex, which is the front part of the brain responsible for organizing, planning, and making decisions, is not yet finished growing in teens. In fact, the cerebral cortex is still developing when young people are most vulnerable to negative social pressures, such as drugs and other dangerous and risky behaviors.
The justice system has started taking this incomplete development into consideration where juvenile sentencing is concerned. Last year, the Supreme Court of Alabama in the case of Miller v. Alabama ruled that mandatory sentencing of those under the age of 18 to life without parole goes against the 8th amendment, which protects citizens against excessive, cruel, and unusual punishment. Although not excluding life without parole as an option, the judge said that the mandatory sentence prohibits judges and juries from deciding the most appropriate punishment for individuals whose age has an impact on the ability to fully consider and appreciate the consequences of their actions. Although the ruling has not been adopted by all states, it has opened an important debate regarding whether all cases of juveniles being sentenced to life without parole should be re-examined.
For example, if a crime was committed in 1987 when the defendant was 15 years old, should the case be re-opened now in light of the evidence that that there is a distinct difference between the critical thinking abilities of youth and adults?
Naysayers argue that reopening so many cases would be a disaster that would overwhelm the system, and that if the defendant really deserved a chance at parole, there is the option to seek executive clemency, meaning that the President of the United States or the state governor could pardon or reduce a sentence. However, is it really necessary that the President weigh in on every case of a hot-headed teenager who took the wrong path?
There is little or no reason for the governor to actually interfere with the justice system when the courts are far more experienced and better equipped to make sentencing decisions. Even if the governor was inclined to help, how many teens would be able to command enough time and attention to make a compelling case and receive a fair hearing? Perhaps one or two before the pleas become repetitive and it becomes clear that the circumstances of youth are the rule and not the exception – or the governor decides it is a false pretense and stops
Allowing the judge and jury to decide the punishment based on individual cases while taking into consideration the limitations of a young, undeveloped brain would allow for a more just punishment, and one that ought to leave room for redemption, in at least some cases. Life without parole, without taking circumstances and youth into consideration, not only locks the person away for life, but also that person’s potential, leaving no chance for the person to redeem themselves and demonstrate that they are capable of being productive and perhaps even outstanding members of society. This has happened many times, unfortunately: Young people have been sentenced to life without parole and have wasted a lifetime in prison when they could have contributors to society rather than a burden.
We now know that the judge and jury should be allowed to explore the potential for change and redemption in young people when it is there, but what about those who did not receive such consideration? Must they continue to live separated from society without a fair re-examination? Just because the science was not available at the time that they committed the crime does not mean that we should dismiss such cases as a thing of the past. DNA analysis brought about a huge change in criminal investigation and helped bring justice to many innocent people, and neuroscience can, and should, do the same with excessive, cruel, and unusual sentencing of juveniles.
About the Author:
Andrew M. Weisberg is a criminal defense attorney in Chicago, Illinois. A former prosecutor in Cook County, Mr. Weisberg is a member of the Capital Litigation Trial Bar, an elite group of criminal attorneys who are certified by the Illinois Supreme Court to try death penalty cases. He is also a member of the Federal Trial Bar. Mr. Weisberg is a solo practitioner at the Law Offices of Andrew M. Weisberg.
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