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The Other Supreme Court Victory for Kids

By the end of last week, the Supreme Court and the Affordable Care Act seemed to be all anyone was talking about. That wasn’t the only important victory for Nebraska’s children handed down from the bench, though.

Building on its other decisions in recent years, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled that the mandatory sentencing of children to life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment, and therefore unconstitutional.

By Duncan Lock CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

For those of you who aren’t expert in legal lingo this is what that means: Nebraska, along with 28 other states, requires life in prison without parole for certain crimes. Judges cannot take the circumstances of the crime or offender into account. They must give everyone the same sentence, whether they were merely the getaway driver or something more, whether they were 13 or 30.  It’s that lack of discretion that the Supreme Court struck down for adolescents. States can no longer pretend that children aren’t children when they sentence them to die in prison.Justice Elena Kagan writing for the majority recapped the decision this way:

Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features – among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.

It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him – and from which he cannot successfully extricate himself – no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.

It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him.

It ignores that he might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense if not for the incompetencies associated with youth – for example his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys.

Finally, this mandatory punishment disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it.

The Court’s decisions in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama mean that both legislators and courts in Nebraska will have to take another hard look at how we treat children who come into conflict with the law. The time to make reforms that better reflect the vulnerabilities and unique capacity of youth to change and grow has arrived!

You can find the complete Supreme Court decision here.

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