PATSY R. BRUMFIELD: More justice comes with youth ruling

By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal

If the so-called experts are right, today we will see a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act, the health care overhaul.
At least some of the act will be ruled unconstitutional, predictions say.
Not to be overlooked is the court’s earlier, narrow majority establishing that juveniles will not be sentenced automatically to life without parole in murder cases.
While these criminal acts are abhorrent, many who know about children believe some of these youthful offenders can emerge from their terrible acts and become productive adults, if given the chance.
What the court majority said Monday was that each of these child-offenders must be provided an opportunity to convince a court that they do not deserve to be shut away for life, without hope of having a life other than the unimaginable “forever” of prison.
Some families of murder victims may be outraged at the possibility that the person who killed their loved one should have the slightest hope of a future outside prison.
Their losses are unimaginable, but surely peace is rare in ceaseless revenge.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, said child offenders are not adults and should not be treated as such. A child’s brain is not an adult’s, she echoes the thoughts of parents everywhere.
Two years ago, Justice Anthony Kennedy – who’s become the court’s swing vote – wrote a majority decision, which outlawed life sentences for juvenile offenders who committed non-homicide crimes. This week’s ruling is a progression on that opinion.
“By denying the defendant the right to reenter the community,” Justice Kennedy wrote, “the State makes an irrevocable judgment about that person’s value and place in society. This judgment is not appropriate in light of a juvenile non homicide offender’s capacity for change and limited moral culpability.”
The new ruling establishes that mandatory life sentences for children run afoul of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The decision does not say that youthful offenders will be free of the possibility of life without parole. What it says is that these criminal defendants – especially those who are mentally, intellectually and emotionally vulnerable – ought to be offered some level of individualized sentencing.
Indeed, some state judges have spoken publicly about their wish to have more flexibility with these sentences. They have sought to better understand the personal circumstances of these defendants and make more appropriate choices than locking up someone and throwing away the key.
State legislators have found it politically popular to sentence offenders in broad categories.
But just because these classifications are convenient, it doesn’t make them constitutional, this week’s ruling makes clear.
Patsy R. Brumfield covers courts and writes a Thursday column. Contact her at patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com.