Real Juvenile Justice Reform Must Be Part of Corrections Reform

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Very disturbing article from Liliana Segura:

Today, Trina is one of approximately 470 prisoners in Pennsylvania serving life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers. In thirty-five years the state has gone from holding a small handful of juvenile lifers with no chance at release to holding the highest number in the country. Nationwide, the number stands at around 2,589; of these, only a small fraction—seventy-nine—were sentenced for crimes committed when they were 14 or younger. Eighteen are in Pennsylvania.

But an upcoming Supreme Court decision could give these prisoners a second chance. On March 20 the Court heard oral arguments in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, two cases involving lifers who were 14 when they committed murder. At the heart of their defense is the argument that regardless of the crime, 14 is too young to be discarded as beyond repair. Teens are impulsive, prone to risky behavior and susceptible to peer pressure, and the youngest among them are light-years from mental maturity. “At fourteen,” the Miller petition argues, “the major transformation in brain structure that will result in a sophisticated system of circuitry between the frontal lobe and the rest of the brain, enabling adults to exercise cognitive control over their behavior, is barely underway.”

The same science on teenage brains provided the basis for the Court’s 2010 ruling in Graham v. Florida, which struck down life without parole for youthful offenders in nonhomicide crimes. That case turned on the Court’s 2005 ruling, in Roper v. Simmons, that outlawed the death penalty for juveniles. Roper established “that because juveniles have lessened culpability, they are less deserving of the most severe punishments,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote. Moreover, “when compared to an adult murderer, a juvenile offender who did not kill or intend to kill has a twice diminished moral culpability.”

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