Few have noticed the lines blurred between child and adult in the criminal justice system. With an increase in "youth" violence over the last 30 years, the response of has been typical: throw 'em all in jail.
And we have. You're welcome. Thursday I will go to juvenile court to represent an otherwise good student from a good family who got in a fight with another girl resulting in no injuries. The days of these "school fights" resulting in a visit to the "office" and a grounding from Mom and Dad, are long over. We prefer handcuffs, jail, court, sentence.
It is our failure. Visit any juvenile court and watch your childhood missteps be adjudicated by men and women in robes, argued by prosecutors, one after the other.
Justice Kennedy says that "as compared to adults, juveniles have a “‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility’”; they “are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure”; and their characters are “not as well formed.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. But they can walk, and talk, and think?
So now, today, as compared to yesterday, we can no longer incarcerate juveniles for life, the rest of their life, for non-murder cases. Apparently: “[i]t is difficult even for expert psychologists to differentiate between the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”
So the reason we can't throw away kids for life is because while some just had a bad night, and others are hardened criminals, we can't really tell the difference, and because we can't be sure, we just shouldn't be able to sentence them to life. Kinda sounds like the framework of the argument against the death penalty - if we can't be sure someone is guilty, maybe we shouldn't have......never mind, that's for another day.
Until yesterday, America was the only Nation that imposes life without parole sentences on juvenile nonhomicide offenders.
No one else. America is the only place where we are unable to see the possibility of rehabilitation in our children. How proud we must to say that a kid at 14 or 15 will never be anything more than a criminal.
Make no mistake, this is a watershed ruling. This is a message that we are going in a different direction, if only on this one issue.
Most of us see the criminal justice system as a place for big guys with tattoos, and other strange looking characters we wouldn't invite in our homes. Walking into a juvenile court can sometimes make one think that there are kids playing criminal. It can't be that some fresh-faced 13 year old is there in chains and a jumpsuit. Yes, he's there, and so are his friends.
The over legislation of the criminal justice system is a tribute to us as Americans. The public only want to make it easier to put more people in jail, for longer sentences. There is little thought on the basics of our system. I have for a long time said that we should scrap the system and create one from scratch. We should sit down in a conference room with some judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, cops, corrections officers, and a few crime victims, and a yellow legal pad.
If we did that, this, the abolition of life sentences for nonhomicide juveniles, would certainly be on that legal pad.
Brian Tannebaum is a criminal defense lawyer in Miami, Florida practicing in state and federal court, and the author of The Truth About Hiring A Criminal Defense Lawyer. Post to Twitter
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