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Can Minors Be Sentenced To Life In Prison Without Parole?

When it comes to crimes committed by minors there is much debate over appropriate sentencing. When minors are convicted of serious crimes - ones which usually result in the death penalty or life in prison - deciding how to sentence them is very contentious.

Currently the Wisconsin Supreme Court is reviewing a case involving strict sentencing in violent juvenile crime. In 1998, a 14- year-old from Green Bay was convicted of intentional homicide after he chased a 13-year-old boy up to the top of a parking ramp and pushed him over the edge. He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Now the state Supreme Court is reviewing the case to determine if the sentence is considered unconstitutional under the 8th amendment which bans cruel and unusual punishment. Defense attorneys for the convicted man (who is now in his late twenties) argue that delivering such a sentence to any 14-year-old is cruel and unusual no matter what crime was committed.

As evidence, they cite studies and medical data which show that child and juvenile brains are not fully capable of controlling impulsivity or determining right from wrong. They argue that because these areas of the brain are still developing, a 14-year-old cannot be held fully responsible for his crimes, even ones as serious as intentional homicide.

Prosecutors defend the punishment, claiming that the constitution does not draw an age distinction for criminal sentencing. They also believe that for a serious crime such as intentional homicide the sentencing decision was fair and appropriate.

It is always shocking to see that minors and children are sometimes capable of committing violent crimes such as murder. Because cases are relatively rare and because our scientific knowledge of child development is incomplete, there are no clear-cut guidelines for sentencing.

This case will first be heard by the Wisconsin Supreme Court but it could potentially be brought before the U.S. Supreme Court. Either way we will post the results on this blog.

Source: State Bar of Wisconsin online, "Supreme court may decide if juveniles 14-and-under can be sentenced to life without parole," Joe Forward, 07 January 2011

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