In June, the United States Supreme Court held that juveniles who committed murder while under the age of 18 cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. However, the Court's holding did not make clear whether this mandate should be applied retroactively or whether it should apply only in future cases.
As a result, lower courts and state legislators are now hashing out this issue, leaving over 2,000 convicted juvenile crime offenders and the families of their victims in a state of limbo.
The debate is being informed by two distinct arguments. On the one hand, many argue that juvenile offenders can be rehabilitated and "grow up" to be responsible adults over time. Others argue that the murderous crimes committed by the then-juvenile offenders were so heinous that setting them free does an injustice to their victims and their families.
At a snail's pace, some of the over 2,000 individuals being housed for life without the possibility of parole for murders committed as juveniles are being granted resentencing hearings. However, the sensitive nature of this subject is only allowing these hearings to move forward slowly and essentially, one at a time.
Though some state governors are allowing for resentencing only after a very significant amount of time has been served by these offenders, this action seems to miss the point of the Supreme Court's analysis. Essentially, the Court reasoned that such significant sentences for juvenile offenders fails to consider social influences, the role the offender took in the crime and most importantly, scientific research supporting the idea that young people have incomplete brain development and cannot properly calculate risk or consequence.
As these cases move forward, the Supreme Court's analysis and respect for the victims and their loved ones should drive the debate. What kind of balance must be struck has yet to be determined.
Source: New York Times, "Juvenile Killers and Life Terms: a Case in Point," Ethan Bronner, Oct. 13, 2012