Global Issues

Supreme Court rules mandatory life sentences for children are unconstitutional

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At TED2012, lawyer Bryan Stevenson made an impassioned case for confronting racial and economic injustice in the American justice system. And, he argued, confronting that means changing the way the system approaches child offenders. In his talk he says: “I represent children. A lot of my clients are very young. The United States is the only country in the world where we sentence 13-year-old children to die in prison. We have life imprisonment without parole for kids in this country … the only country in the world.”

Stevenson is Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who represented two plaintiffs in a case before the United States Supreme Court. In Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, two young men were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, sentences that were mandated by law. Stevenson argued that laws mandating sentences of life without the possibility of parole for adolescents and children are unconstitutional.

Yesterday, the Court ruled those mandatory sentences unconstitutional. According to Stevenson, “This is an important win for children. The Court took a significant step forward by recognizing the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that don’t allow sentencers to consider the unique status of children and their potential for change.”

Justice Kagan, writing for the majority, said: “Given all that we have said in Roper, Graham, and this decision about children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”

This is not news to TEDGlobal speaker Sarah-Jayne Blakemore. A professor at University College London, she researches the adolescent brain, and has found that there are tremendous changes that take place during that stage of growth. Blakemore, who will be speaking at TEDGlobal tomorrow afternoon, was part of a group of neuroscientists who wrote to the Supreme Court two years ago to argue that recent research has shown unequivocally that the brain shows more development during adolescence than was previously assumed, and that the courts should take this development into account in trying juveniles.

According to Blakemore, these results are the result of new technologies, such as MRI, which allow us to look inside the brain. It’s not surprising that there is an instinct to treat adolescents as adults, she says: “Adolescents can look adult, but they don’t have an adult brain. There’s a paradox there, but we should allow for the development of their brain.”

She is quick to point out that current understanding doesn’t tell us when the brain becomes “adult.” In fact, “The whole concept of the brain becoming adult is kind of a red herring.” Nor do they speak to the concept of free will and culpability. But, she notes, “Given the new neuroscience data, it just doesn’t make any sense to put minors in prison for the rest of their lives, given that their brains will naturally develop.”

Stevenson warns that this is not the end, and that prejudices still remain. “In applying their discretion in juvenile life-without-parole sentences, judges need to be mindful to avoid a disproportionate impact on children of color.”