For Kids in Courtrooms, the United States Is Still Cruel and Unusual

Despite the recent Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama, the United States will remain the only country in the world to sentence children to spend their lives in prison. Like countries worldwide, our laws prohibiting children from marrying, voting and drinking recognize that those under the age of 18 are categorically different from adults — a difference we fail to apply to their treatment under criminal law. Enshrined in laws in 28 states and in federal court, children in the United States could be transferred to adult court, tried as adults, and subject to mandatory sentencing schemes. In the Miller decision the Court ruled that a mandatory sentence of life without parole is unconstitutional when applied to juveniles for homicide crimes. Under this decision, judges in all U.S. courts are required to take into account factors such as the defendant’s age, background, involvement in the crime, and possibility of rehabilitation before issuing a sentence.

Teen Brains and Juvenile Justice

A series of Supreme Court decisions is changing the direction of juvenile justice.  A report in the American Bar Association Journal digs into the impact of the Graham v. Florida ruling last May, and Roper v. Simmons from five years ago. Graham bars life-without-parole sentences for teens convicted of anything short of homicide. Roper bans the death penalty for children.  Both decisions were influenced by new research in developmental psychology and neuroscience that reveals how kids’ brains are different from adults’ brains when it comes to impulse control, decision-making and risk-taking. Researchers also maintain teenagers are more capable of long-term change than are adults. Reporter Bryan Stevenson talks with researchers, including Dr. Laurence Steinberg at Temple University, who “likens the teenage brain to a car with a powerful gas pedal and weak brakes. While the gas pedal responsible for things like emotional arousal and susceptibility to peer pressure is fully developed, the brakes that permit long-term thinking and resistance to peer pressure need work.”

Not everyone is on board.