Should teen criminals get life without parole?

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Beginning today the Supreme Court will hear arguments in two cases that question the constitutionality of sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole, which will determine whether it is "cruel and unusual punishment" to deny teens who commit violent crimes a second chance.

This case follows a 2005 court ruling, by a 5-4 margin, that eliminated the death penalty as an option for those who commit crimes before the age of 18. But there are still more than 2,500 people nationwide serving life sentences for juvenile offenses, and the United States is the only country in the world that regularly imposes such sentences on teens.

The arguments against life without parole for juveniles are the same as the arguments used against the death penalty for minors. Numerous studies have shown that adolescent brains are not fully developed, preventing juveniles from having the same decision making ability as their adult counterparts. In other words, someone who chooses to commit a crime as a teen might not make the same decision as an adult because they are better able to understand the consequences--both for the victim(s) and themselves. Not being able to weigh the consequences also means that life without parole sentences don't act as a deterrent for youth.

There have also been studies that link juvenile crime to child abuse and neglect, as well as problems involving drugs and alcohol. In these cases a life without parole sentence simply does not seem helpful, as a treatment program to address the underlying causes would be much more effective and beneficial for all parties involved.

A number of Catholic and faith-based groups have been involved in studying solutions to juvenile crime and advocating for a reform of the system, including Georgetown University's Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and Catholic Charities USA. Others, like Father Michael Kennedy, S.J. of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative, work to bring about healing for the offender, their family, and their victims.

Some may argue that these approaches are "soft on crime" and let juvenile offenders get away with light sentences. But advocates like Kennedy argue that punishing these offenders doesn't really help anyone--it takes away the perpetrator's chance at being a member of society, destroys their family, and doesn't end the pain suffered by the victims. And while in some cases imprisonment is necessary to protect the common good, removing any chance for the offender to be rehabilitated only serves as retribution, not justice.

From a Catholic perspective, there seems to be little justification for life without the possibility of parole. Jesus' death on the cross ensures that no matter what sin we commit, there's always a chance for redemption and God's forgiveness. That should especially hold true for our children, who have so many years ahead of them to learn from their mistakes, seek reconciliation, and become valued members of society.