The recent decision (reported here by the L.A. Times) by the U.S. Supreme Court to ban mandatory juvenile life without parole has been rightly celebrated as a victory by activists and others interested in progressive policies. The ruling has left many scratching their heads in its wake though, mostly because the court ruled the sentences unconstitutional, but did not directly assign a process for revisiting the cases, many of which are decades old.
A few opponents to the ruling are even contending that it cannot be applied retroactively. Youth Radio interviewed Jennifer Bishop, the President of the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers. Ms. Bishop, who has previously written for JJIE, is a victims’ rights advocate whose group focuses on those most affected by juvenile murderers: families. The group’s website, teenkillers.org, offers links to analyses of the court’s decision that argue for letting current sentences stand, a very narrow interpretation of the ruling.
In Michigan, second only to Pennsylvania in the number of affected prisoners, the court of Appeals is hearing a case that, “may shape the fate of 368 prisoners serving mandatory life sentences…” committed as juveniles. Jonathan Oosting, writing for MLive, details the difficulties facing the court. These same difficulties will be faced in jurisdictions around the country. Some states will use legislation to move into compliance, as Reuters explained in a September article on California’s new law covering relevant cases.
Others, at least for a time, will depend on courts to solve the problem. This will have its own difficulties, since in many ways this is asking the court to create law. The presiding appeals court judge in Michigan, Michael J. Talbot, points out that it is unclear whether or not the Supreme Court’s decision was substantive or, “merely a procedural issue.” If it is substantive, it affects all cases. If not, then the ruling would only apply to the cases before the court and to future cases. Talbot, speaking about the decision, said, “If Kagan had the votes, she would have said it was substantive. But it's not clear because she didn't."
This confusion is unfortunate, and it means that advocates, both for and against the ruling have a lot of work left to do. It is likely that these cases will drag on for years. For me the decision is easy. I favor resentencing of all affected prisoners. I realize that this will put a burden on the courts and everyone else involved, most unfortunately of all on the victims.
I see no other way forward though. The trend in the court’s recent decisions is clear, and argues for taking into account the differences between juveniles and adults. This way of viewing young people will likely continue, and it is in fact supported by science and research. Let’s take the time, and the trouble, to look at these cases now. The states will still be allowed to implement life without parole if they deem it necessary, but those serving the sentences, most of whom are adults now, deserve the chance to have their cases looked at through this evolving lens of understanding into how the adolescent mind works, and how it can change.