Afghanistan has its child brides, the Sudan its child soldiers. And until recently, the United States was alone in the world in having one thing: child lifers.
The Supreme Court (yes this Supreme Court) ruled 5 to 4 on May 17th 2010 that kids younger than 18 who didn’t kill anybody are the subjects of cruel and unusual punishment if given a sentence of life without parole.
Justice Anthony Kennedy rightly points out that “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.” Adolescents’ brains are still maturing well into their 20’s (as any parent whose teenager has come home with pierced nipples knows.)
The case at hand involves a Florida youth named Terrance Graham who was convicted at age 16 of robbery and placed on probation. When he violated his probation by participating in a home invasion, a trial judge sentenced him to life without parole, telling him, “You threw your life away. I don’t know why.” Actually judge, that was you, imposing a sentence more severe than the prosecution was even recommending.
At the time of the ruling, there were some 129 juvenile offenders serving life sentences without the possibility of parole; 77 of those sentences were handed down in Florida. Now this new ruling doesn’t mean all 129 kids will be sprung from their respective slammers tomorrow. Some may not get out at all. Indeed the court asserted that “a state need not guarantee the offender’s eventual release.” It is still up to the juvenile to prove his or her rehabilitation. But thanks to these 5 justices, these child-prisoners have something they have not had for a very long time: hope.