Monday, October 05, 2009

The October Term 2009: The Supreme Court and Juveniles

Bernard E. Harcourt

The Supreme Court opens its term today and on its docket is a truly disturbing case of a 13-year-old boy who was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole—that’s right, without parole—in the state of Florida for a non-homicide offense. I’ve stated my opinion in the Los Angeles Times this morning, so I won’t rehash it all here. But …

The constitutional issue is relatively simple, I should think. One of the young boys (now a man) before the Court is the only person in the entire United States who was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for a non-homicide offense committed when he was only 13 years old. That was more than 15 years ago, and the young man, who is severely mentally disabled and now suffers from a serious medical condition that requires that he use a wheelchair, is still serving LWOP. The fact that no other state in this country and no other country in the world sentences 13-year-old children to life imprisonment without parole should tell us something about the right outcome in this case.

The policy issue strikes me as even simpler. A sentence of life imprisonment without parole can only have the worst possible effect on the kind of treatment and education that the young offender is going to receive in prison. And it is surely going to have irremediable consequences on the mental and psychological outlook of the condemned youth. We, as a society, must be able to come up with a better way to address the problems of a 13-year-older—especially someone who has not committed a homicide and is suffering from severe mental disabilities—than by sentencing him or her to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

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