Thursday, 1 July 2010

A New Standard of Decency

May 17, 2010

Monday’s welcome Supreme Court decision, banning sentences of life without parole for juvenile criminals who do not commit murder, recognizes that children mature and should not be irrevocably punished for a childhood act short of killing. But it also recognizes that nations mature — that standards of justice and constitutional principles change over the centuries and should be reinterpreted by new generations.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a five-member majority, acknowledged that permanent life sentences for juveniles might not have been historically recognized as cruel and unusual punishment but should now be considered unconstitutional because of “evolving standards of decency.”

Justice John Paul Stevens stated the case simply and elegantly in a concurring opinion:

“Society changes,” he wrote. “Knowledge accumulates. We learn, sometimes, from our mistakes. Punishments that did not seem cruel and unusual at one time may, in the light of reason and experience, be found cruel and unusual at a later time.”

That, of course, infuriated the strict constructionists on the court, who said the Constitution’s framers meant “cruel and unusual” to refer to torture and nothing more. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for two other justices, said the court was overstepping its bounds by interpreting the clause to ban disproportionate punishment.

Viewing the case from that 18th-century perspective, however, means ignoring recent scientific evidence showing a fundamental difference between the minds of juveniles and adults. Justice Kennedy, expanding on his landmark 2005 decision that banned the death penalty for juveniles, noted that the brain matures through late adolescence. He said juvenile actions are less likely to be evidence of an “irretrievably depraved character.”

The subject of the case decided on Monday, Terrance Graham, whose parents were crack addicts, participated in a restaurant robbery at age 16 and in a home-invasion robbery at age 17. A Florida judge sentenced him to life in prison without parole in 2005 at a time when the state, overreacting to a rash of juvenile crime, was cracking down on what it considered teenage superpredators.

But the court was hardly ordering his release, or that of the 128 other juveniles like him around the country (mostly in Florida) who are also locked up with no chance of parole. Instead, the court simply gave these prisoners a chance to show that they have matured and been rehabilitated, that years after their crimes, they have, at least, the hope of winning their release. (Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. took a middle position, saying Mr. Graham deserved a shot at parole but declining to endorse a categorical position.)

The majority’s opinion was particularly heartening for its forthright acknowledgment that there are other sources of judicial inspiration beyond the country’s founders. The low number of juvenile criminals sentenced to life without parole for noncapital crimes demonstrates that states, judges, prosecutors and juries have reached a de facto national consensus against the practice, the opinion said.

And, braving the catcalls of nativists, Justice Kennedy also looked to international law to bolster his argument, noting that this form of sentencing had been rejected by countries the world over. Until Monday, the United States was the only country to impose such sentences on its teenagers; thanks to five justices on the court, the world now stands in unanimous agreement.


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