Youth are Different

One of the Center for Families, Children and the Courts’ (CFCC) fundamental premises is that the law must consider the realities of human development when acting upon people’s lives. Children are especially vulnerable to harm, and they also differ from adults in their capacities, understanding, and judgment. Once again, the Supreme Court has recognized this fact.

We at CFCC applaud their recent decision in Graham v. Florida, No. 08-7412, 560 U.S. (2010). Graham categorically prohibits a life without parole sentence for juveniles in non-homicide offenses. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy (joined in the opinion by Justices Stevens, Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor, and in the decision by Chief Justice Roberts) has relied heavily on Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), the case prohibiting the death penalty for crimes committed while a juvenile. Justice Kennedy wrote:

Roper established that because juveniles have lessened culpability they are less deserving of the most severe punishments. 543 U.S. at 569. 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.” Id., at 569-70. These salient characteristics mean that “[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.” Id., at 573. Accordingly, “juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst of offenders.” Id., at 569. A juvenile is not absolved of responsibility for his actions, but his transgression “is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.” Thompson, supra, at 835. (plurality opinion). (Slip opinion, p. 16.)

Justice Kennedy goes on to explain that theories of punishment such as deterrence and incapacitation operate differently when applied to young people, and rehabilitation is an especially important goal. “A life without parole sentence improperly denies the juvenile offender a chance to demonstrate growth and maturity.” (Id., p. 22). Graham does not force states to parole youth, but it does require that they give young people a “meaningful opportunity” for release, “based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” (Id., at 24).

Justice Roberts agreed with the Court’s decision because of the particular facts, but he was not willing to establish a categorical rule.

CFCC commends the Court’s recognition that children deserve special consideration and its willingness to preserve hope for youth who might previously have faced a sentence without end. Not decided in Graham was the validity of the sentence for young people found guilty of homicide.

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