With a nod to emerging brain science that contends adolescents are fundamentally different from adults -- and a stern rebuke to the one-size-fits-all approach to prosecuting underaged defendants in adult courts -- the United States Supreme Court ruled Monday that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for crimes committed by juveniles, even the most heinous crimes, violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The decision could mean eventual release for many of the 2,300 inmates across the country serving life for such crimes.
The 5-4 Supreme Court decision dealt somewhat narrowly with two cases involving fourteen-year-olds convicted in homicide cases in Alabama and Arkansas. But it also has bearing on more than forty such cases in Colorado, including those of Nate Ybanez and Erik Jensen, as well as Jacob Ind (pictured above), who, at fifteen, killed his mother and stepfather with another teen's aid, after what he claimed was years of sexual and physical abuse. (See our 1998 feature, "The Killer and Mrs. Johnson.")
Given that previous decisions by the Supremes had already banned the death penalty for juveniles, as well as life without parole for crimes that didn't involve killings, yesterday's ruling wasn't a tremendous surprise. Neurological research over the past twenty years has persuaded justices that teens' thinking processes are still undergoing development, and that what might be considered hopelessly pathological behavior in an adult could be more treatable (or at least alterable) in an adolescent.
Yet the decision didn't rule out the possibility that particularly vicious baby-faced killers could still receive a true life sentence. The point is that it has to be done on an individual basis, by a judge taking into account all the mitigating and aggravating factors in the case, rather than by a legislative mandate. Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan noted:
"Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features -- among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him -- and from which he cannot usually extricate himself -- no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him. Indeed, it ignores that he might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense if not for incompetencies associated with youth -- for example, his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys."
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It's not clear at this point what sort of legislative or judicial review will be involved in each case, or what kind of time those now in the LWOP category will end up serving. Mary Ellen Johnson, director of the Denver-based Pendulum Foundation, which has campaigned for years to end life without parole for juveniles, says her group is still reviewing the decision. "It's going to be pretty complicated" to implement, she suggests. "You have to give them a meaningful opportunity for release, not just change all their sentences to seventy years."
Whatever yardstick is used, there's suddenly a prospect in the criminal justice arena in Colorado that hasn't been seen much in the past thirty years -- the possibility that youths who get caught up in the worst kind of crimes, whether as conspirators or flunkies or prime actors, might actually be judged with some consideration of their age and the likelihood of rehabilitation, rather than written off in every instance as utterly unredeemable -- and then housed at state expense for life.
For more on how the criminal justice pendulum seems to be swinging back to less draconian sentencing schemes, see my article in the Columbia Journalism Review on two recent books by journalists dealing with that topic.
More from our Follow That Story archive: "Juveniles prosecuted as adults: Colorado's hardline approach not working, report says."