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Wisconsin Supreme Court keeps life sentence for juvenile: Part II

Earlier this week, we began a discussion about the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision to uphold a sentence of life without parole for a man who committed first-degree murder when he was just 14 years old. The recent ruling highlights Wisconsin's difficult and often controversial viewpoints about how to punish juvenile crime.

The defendant was convicted of murder in 1998 when he was still a juvenile. Because of the horrific nature of the crime, he was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

However, since that time, critics have argued that the sentence was too harsh given what we now know about adolescent brain development. Furthermore, they say, the young man has shown marked improvement in character and emotional development during his time in prison which is indicative of reform.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court appeal was argued by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). The director of EJI argued that society rarely imposes such harsh sentences on 14-year-olds. In fact, among this age group in the United States, only 73 teens in 18 states have been sentenced to life without parole.

The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families also argued for leniency in light of what we know about adolescent brain development. In a court brief, the Council said:

"Children and adolescents are not adults in miniature; their youth makes them less able to recognize the consequences of their decisions, yet more capable of extraordinary, positive growth as they develop into adults."

The defendant's attorneys also cited evidence that the young man has since reformed. When he was 23 years old, a clinical neuropsychologist examined the man and concluded that the behavioral deficits from his teenage years are now gone. The youth has also "grown into a thoughtful young man whose prognosis for successful re-entry into the community, and absence of recidivism, is very good."

Despite these arguments, the state Supreme Court upheld the sentence of life without parole. Next week, we will conclude our discussion on this topic by examining the history of juvenile crime in Wisconsin and how the laws have changed.

Source: Journal-Sentinel online, "Sentence of life without parole for teen upheld," Bruce Vielmetti, 20 May 2011

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