Incarceration in America: Should Juveniles Be Sentenced to Life Without Parole?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

All this week, The Takeaway is talking about incarceration in America. We’ll talk with experts, advocates and former prisoners about the issues they’re facing, behind bars and outside the prison walls. Today we're focusing on juvenile justice.

This morning, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases with serious implications for children convicted of homicide: Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs. Both cases concern 14-year-olds convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole. The question before the court is whether life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment. The Court has considered a number of juvenile justice cases over the past few years. In the 2005 case Roper v. Simmons, the Court overturned precedent by outlawing death sentences for juveniles. In the 2010 case Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court ruled life sentences for juveniles convicted of non-homicide crimes unconstitutional. How will the Supreme Court rule this time?

With us is Terry Maroney, professor at Vanderbilt Law School and an expert on juvenile justice.


Terry A. Maroney

Produced by:

Jillian Weinberger

Comments [1]


Here is my message for Professor Maroney:

Your advocacy, that past studies, academic papers, social engineering predictions were wrong (you cite the mistaken social-science prediction of a wave of juvenile "superpredators") is a reason to go to state legislatures across the country, and ask those legislators to change the laws in question.

You, professor, ought to know, that the argument that "science now knows a better answer" has little to do with basic questions of constitutionality, and particularly so under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which proscribes "cruel and unusual punishments."

The Constitution doesn't forbid the passage of laws because circumstances have changed. The Supreme Court of the United States isn't a super-legislature. Not every legal problem becomes a federal lawsuit asking for protction under the Bill of Rights.

This issue is a wonderful illustration of why federal appellate courts ought not to be digging into scholarly journals and social science studies to find academically "correct" answers. If the Supreme Court had based a decision 25 years ago on the idea that society needed protection from a wave of "superpredators," Professor Maroney and I would now agree; the Court would have blown that decision.

So why now should we accept the opposite outcome? That because there may have been a mistaken reliance by state legislators on "superpredator" predictions, those laws must be stricken as a matter of Eighth Amendment protections? Is the Eighth Amendment really that slippery? Are the words really that amorphous, that they can mean two completely different things 20 years apart?

There are legislatures, which pass, amend and repeal laws all the time based on whether they seem like a good idea to the polity. Then there are courts, which don't sit as legislators with better ideas, but rather as careful stewards of constitutional language. For any justice who knows his or her place in the basic scheme of constitutional interpretation, this ought to be an easy call; courts don't legislate.

Mar. 20 2012 10:21 AM

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