A Juvenile Justice Victory but Indicative of More Work to Be Done
September 05 2012
By Edward Carlson, Policy Analyst, Civil Rights Project
The recent Supreme Court decision in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama was a victory for juvenile justice advocates around the country. The court, while splitting 5–4, made clear in the majority opinion that age and mitigating factors should have been considered in the sentencing of two juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Particularly given the offenders were only 14 when they committed their respective crimes, their diminished capacity to distinguish between right and wrong, vulnerability to peer pressure, and ability to change all should have been factors considered during the sentencing phase of their trials. This consideration could have made all the difference in the punishment that was ultimately meted out.
But what the decision also highlights is the problem with harsh youth sentencing overall, including the mandatory minimums that continue to be doled out. The Supreme Court’s decision highlights the extreme stakes that a person may face with a mandatory sentence. Every day, strict sentences are passed down without any consideration for mitigating circumstances such as age. More needs to be done to determine whether mandatory sentencing is fair, whether it is worth the financial cost, and whether it works as a deterrent against crime.
Particularly for juveniles, where mandatory sentencing applies, the sentencing can be especially tough. The young petitioners in Jackson v. Hobbs would have faced unusually long sentences given their age. Moreover, as the amicus brief submitted by the American Psychological Association asserts, juveniles are generally less cognitively able to appreciate the wrongfulness of their actions and are less likely to possess the experience and maturity to navigate problematic situations. Bryan Stevenson, the lead attorney arguing against the mandatory life sentence in the two cases, notes that we don’t allow youth to drive, drink alcohol, or vote when they are underage, no matter how mature they may prove to be. It makes sense, then, to think about whether giving harsh punishments to the very same youth is warranted.
This issue resonates deeply within the Hispanic community. We are increasingly concerned about whether our backgrounds will negatively impact our dealings with the criminal justice system. Whether a Hispanic youth is subjected to excessive use of force by police, stopped and frisked for wearing certain clothes, or transferred to the adult court from the juvenile court, many Latino youths’ first interactions with law enforcement are becoming increasingly negative.
The Supreme Court ruling in Jackson and Miller is therefore a momentous occasion. The majority decision allows for an opportunity to provide evidence on behalf of a youth before the sentencing phase of the trial. More work needs to be done, however, to determine whether mandatory sentencing is the right thing to be doing in the first place. We hope that this initial step forward can galvanize greater change in the juvenile justice system, and that we can ultimately tackle sentencing reform by keeping it in the public view and on the conscience of those who care about the future of our youth.
Issues: Criminal Justice System
Geography:California, Far West, Midwest, Northeast, Southeast, Texas