There are thousands of inmates in America’s prisons who are serving life sentences for crimes they committed in their teens. If you are a minor facing serious charges, a Detroit criminal defense attorney may be able to protect your rights in court. The Supreme Court decided in 2012 that automatic life sentences for teenagers consists in cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment of the US Constitution—but judges still have the discretion to hand out life sentences in cases they deem fit.
Should minors ever be sentenced to life in prison? To find an answer, it can be useful to look at how the US Supreme Court tackled the question of death sentences for minors. After setting the minimum execution age at 16 in 1989, the Court finally abolished the practice in 2005. In its 350 years of existence, the United States executed more than 360 minors—a practice that is now considered to be cruel and unusual punishment.
In the majority opinion that abolished the execution of minors, Justice Kennedy wrote: “When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.” What he meant is that the young are capable of change and deserve a second chance—a view that receives support from emerging research in the field of neuropsychology.
Science Shows that Teens May Not Be Fully Responsible for Their Actions
For decades, there’s been a scientific consensus that the human brain continues to change into a person’s twenties, and that these changes could account for the impulsive and irrational behavior of teenagers. Such evidence was offered to the Court as it considered whether minors should ever be sentenced to death, and has come up again in recent cases, such as when the Supreme Court banned automatic life sentences for teens in 2012.
According to David Fassler, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, “Kids may know the difference between right and wrong, but that does not stop them from doing dumb and dangerous things that they would never think of doing as adults.” Indeed, research has shown that the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that allows humans to control impulses and anticipate consequences—is the last to develop.
For this reason, teenagers and young adults may lack the ability to control their impulses and to make mature decisions. Even when they commit horrible crimes, minors should be considered less responsible than an adult who committed the same crime. But is it fair for the authorities to give more lenient punishments to different people who commit the same crime?
Are All Criminal Perpetrators Equal Under the Law?
In deciding whether to abolish the death penalty for minors, the Supreme Court drew from the analysis it followed in 2002 when abolishing the practice of executing the mentally disabled. Like the mentally disabled, some teenagers lack the developmental prerequisites to understanding the consequences of their actions or to control violent impulses.
In both cases, the Court asked whether a national consensus had formed on whether it was decent to execute certain categories persons, and found that most people considered the practice of executing disabled or minor persons cruel and unusual punishment. Unlike death sentences for the disabled or for minors, however, most states still have laws permitting life sentences for teenagers. Thus, it seems unlikely that a ban on teen life sentences will be implemented any time soon.
Furthermore, the Court’s line of reasoning in these cases is vulnerable to a slippery slope argument: what other categories of people should face more lenient criminal punishments? Should people with little education, low intelligence, or who come from violent homes be given more lenient punishments? After all, these categories of people—just like the mentally disabled or the young—may have a greater propensity for committing crimes for reasons that are not under their control.
According to the late Justice William O. Douglas: “One searches our chronicles in vain for the execution of any member of the affluent strata of this society.” This country’s criminal justice system favors the powerful at the expense of the poor, and at Davis Law Group, our goal is to give every one of our clients the best chances possible when they face criminal charges. If you need a Detroit criminal defense attorney, call us today at (313) 818-3238 for your free and confidential consultation.