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But What About Life Without Parole?

This post was written by Paul Richardson, a free lance journalist who has written for publications that include the Capital Fax. All views and options are their own and not of All City Bail Bonds

No matter what kind of crime a minor commits, no matter how heinous, or how premeditated, the Supreme Court has determined that they cannot be executed. This is because of the prohibition that the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution places on “cruel and unusual punishment.” In other words, according to the nation’s highest court, it is cruel and unusual to sentence a minor to death.

We spoke with Cristine Beckwith, an attorney who has defended juveniles in high profile cases in Washington State. "The biggest justification for this finding is that a minor's brain is often times not completely formed when they are in their mid- to late-teens," Beckwith said. "Physiologically speaking, they lack some of the “parts” that a fully developed brain has. These parts help prevent adults from being irrational and self-centered and also prevent us from committing rash, ill-conceived acts."

But What About Life Without Parole?

Recently the Supreme Court took another step, by holding that a minor cannot be “automatically” sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole unless certain factors that might mitigate the minor’s guilt are considered. These factors—such as family environment, age, emotional maturity, and potential for rehabilitation—previously went ignored by many states that had automatic life-sentencing statutes for crimes like murder.

Unfortunately, in holding that minors cannot be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, the Court didn’t speak to the retroactivity question. In other words, do those children who were sentenced before this case get the benefit of the decision? Or must they serve mandatory life sentences while similarly situated defendants get more lenient treatment simply because they committed a crime later in time?

Helping Juveniles in Jail for a Lifetime

As a recent New York Times  editorial asserts, it is only fair to apply the new law retroactively. All minors serving life sentences without the possibility of parole should be given a new penalty hearing where a jury is given the chance to consider the potentially mitigating evidence. The editorial, however, goes further, logically suggesting that life in prison without the possibility of parole is never an appropriate sentence for a minor.

This position has much merit. After all, the logic as to why a death sentence is inappropriate for a minor applies with nearly the same force when the sentence being considered is life in prison without the possibility of parole. In either case, the minor—who is developmentally different from the adult offender—is never leaving the prison walls. It seems inconceivable to say that—at the young age of 16 or 17—a minor is incapable of ever being rehabilitated and must spend the rest of his or her life behind bars.

Criminal defense attorneys who work with clients of all ages, including minors, are intimately aware of the way that age and life circumstance can impact decision-making. Locking offenders up forever, without a second chance is rarely a prudent choice for the offender or for the society that they live in.