The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling this week striking down life sentences for juvenile offenders was historic and wise.
But it's actually the court's third wise ruling in seven years, with each decision moving our judicial system closer to the right balance between justice for victims' families and redemption for teenagers, even in the most heinous of cases.
The court ruled that states may not impose mandatory life sentences on juveniles without the possibility of parole, because those sentences constitute "cruel and unusual punishment."
Approximately 2,500 youths in this country are serving sentences of life without parole, including seven in Minnesota. Ours is the only country in the world that sentences children to life without parole, said Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Fair Sentencing of Youth, founded in 2009 to bring this appalling distinction to light.
In their 5-4 ruling, the court did not abolish life sentences for juveniles. The justices said that those sentences can no longer be mandatory, a decision hailed by juvenile justice advocates.
"The court reaffirmed that young people are significantly different than adults," Kent Lavy said.
In 2005, the court abolished the death sentence for those under 18 convicted of murder. In 2010, the court ruled that life terms with no parole were unconstitutional for juveniles who commit non-murder-related crimes.
Hennepin County public defender Lisa McNaughton called the ruling "a wonderful decision. It's absolutely essential that a judge have the authority to make that decision, based on the unique circumstances of the child, their level of functioning and brain development," she said.
"People change so much between ages 14 and 28. We want these kids to be productive members of society. If we lock them up forever, that's not going to happen."
The justices were compelled by a growing body of research showing that the brain is not fully developed until around age 25. This leads some youths to be more impulsive and more likely to take risks, with little understanding of the sometimes devastating consequences.
Many young offenders also suffer from abuse and neglect, learning disabilities or mental health issues. Sue Abderholden, director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, noted that 70 percent of youths in the juvenile justice system have one or more mental health diagnoses. Many of them, particularly children of color, do not receive any mental health services until they are sent to jail.
"We are not intervening early with kids," Abderholden said. "We need to be."
Kent Lavy points to the Missouri Model for inspiration. That program, she said, helps young offenders clearly understand and appreciate the consequences of their actions, but focuses on each perpetrator's strengths to help him or her grow and change. Teens are placed in small units and are partnered with counselors and peers for support.
In the Twin Cities, the Juvenile Justice Coalition of Minnesota is using a $250,000 federal stimulus grant to study better ways to reach juvenile offenders. Director Cheryl Kreager said that one key to breaking the cycle is by keeping youths out of court.
"Research shows that most juveniles are first arrested for nonviolent offenses and are not going to re-offend. So don't formally charge them, don't put them in front of a judge," Kreager said.
"Save your court system for higher-risk youths, which is a better allocation of resources and a better response for young people."
While a compassionate approach gives offenders a second chance, it's reasonable to ask about the victim's grieving family, too. Doesn't society have an obligation to them?
Absolutely. But survivors' needs aren't always best served by a lock-them-up-forever approach. In her research, Kreager found that victims' families don't necessarily get what they need out of the current system, either.
"They want a sense that it's not going to happen to someone else," she said. "They want that person to have recognition that someone was hurt, and our system doesn't necessarily allow for that."
Restorative justice, in which perpetrators take responsibility for their actions, gets us closer to that goal. Several people referred to Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel, of Minneapolis, who have together become a national example of the best sort of redemption. In 2005, Johnson founded "From Death to Life" (www.fromdeathtolife.us), then forgave Israel, who killed her only son 12 years earlier. She now calls Israel her "spiritual son."
Few grieving parents can arrive at the place of spectacular generosity that Johnson could, and should never be made to feel that they must.
And not all young offenders can be rehabilitated. Public safety is best served by keeping these perpetrators behind bars. But they now will be the exceptions and not the rule, and that's heartening progress.
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