The US Supreme Court and Juvenile Justice

On Monday, May 17, the US Supreme Court ruled that juveniles could not be given life sentences for crimes that did not involve murder or the intent to murder. So far 129 young people in various states—77 in Florida alone—were caught in such horrendous sentences, declared “cruel and unusual” by the highest court. But the laws were in the books in 37 states and the District of Columbia as well as federal law. These have now been struck down. Human rights activists from around the world have long decried the terrible price the United States makes youth offenders pay, the only industrial country to continue to try youth as adults as well as sentence them to life sentences. Five years ago in Roper v. Simmons, the US Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for juvenile offenders—again at the time the United States was the only major country to have juvenile death sentences. These are all steps forward. I’m particularly pleased with the recent ruling since my story was among several stories from youth offenders who later become well-known actors, politicians, writers, and athletes. These stories were submitted last November in an Amicus Brief to the Graham v. Florida case that the Supreme Court ruled on last Monday. As my friend Jody Kent of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth stated, “(Monday’s ruling) is a significant reaffirmation by the Court that youth are fundamentally different than adults and should be held accountable in an age-appropriate way… the court reiterated that psychological and scientific developments continue to support the notion that ‘because juveniles have lessened culpability they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.’ ” There is, of course, more work to be done. The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth continues to insist that no young person, even those who have committed capital crimes, should be put away for good. There are still 2,500 people who are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles. I support their efforts. For more information, please go to c/s

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