Rethinking Juvenile Thinking
The criminal justice system is sometimes held as this ideal, a standard that will never be wrong or do any harm to those abiding by it. However, we know this is not true. The system is not perfect.
But that does not keep us from trying to make it perfect. Almost 20 years ago, issues with mandatory minimums – requirements for lengths of sentences for different types of crimes – were being highlighted on the popular TV series The West Wing. As technology has advanced throughout the years, certain kinds of forensic “science” – microscopic hair analysis, tooth models, and lie detector tests, to name a few – have been made inadmissible in courtrooms.
Then, in 2016, the Supreme Court gave its final word on mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles in a case called Miller v. Alabama. It declared them unconstitutional. As 2017 comes to an end, much has been done to undo a wrong within the criminal justice system against this group of “juvenile lifers.”
What Is a Juvenile Lifer?
A juvenile lifer is someone who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole before the age of 18. The crimes committed by these minors were significant enough for them to be tried as adults, and the outcomes were always life without parole.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled this practice unconstitutional in the court case mentioned above. In 2016, it clarified for the lower courts that this practice would be made retroactive to previous juvenile lifer cases, not just the ones sentenced after 2012. Since then, the practice of re-sentencing these juvenile lifers has been ongoing.
What Makes Juvenile Convicts Different?
The latest in neuroscience has shown that teenagers’ brains are still in development. Decision-making capabilities are not as fully formed as those for adults. Anyone who has parented a teenager knows this to be true. In fact, this has been the basis for recent books from both a scientific and a parenting perspective.
Miller v. Alabama reflected the court’s belief in this science, referring to them as “constitutionally different” from adults. “Their [juveniles] lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility lead to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking.” As a group, they are to be considered, according to the court’s decision, as “more vulnerable” and less “well-formed.” As a result, the same standards for sentencing as adults should not be used.
What Does This Mean?
This means two things. First, all juvenile lifers sentenced before last year have the ability to be re-sentenced. This is currently underway and being addressed at the state level. Second, all juveniles in the future will have their sentences determined with this newest information in neuroscience as part of the consideration.
According to U.S. News & World Report, only a handful of the 51 juvenile lifers in Virginia have been re-sentenced. Additionally, the Commonwealth has not changed its laws to reflect the Supreme Court’s ruling. This was as of July 2017.
With only 51 juvenile lifers in Virginia prisons, this is not an issue that affects many. You should take away two things from this, however. First, take comfort that a wrong within our legal system is being made right. Second, know that if you need an attorney, you can find one who is aware of the latest developments in how the courts are handling these kinds of issues. If you, or a juvenile you know, are in need of an attorney, please call or e-mail today for a free consultation.
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