US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Supreme Court ruling favors a second chance for juveniles

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

A lot of the talk about today's Supreme Court rulings has focused on their decision regarding Arizona's controversial immigration law and the fact that they're making us wait a few more days for a decision on health care, but there is another important opinion that was delivered this morning.

In the related cases of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, the court struck down mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles by a 5-4 margin on the grounds that they violate the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Both cases centered on 14-year-old offenders who were convicted of charges that carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole, giving the local judges no authority to weigh the circumstances of the case in determining the appropriate sentencing.

As we've written before, there are many arguments for reform in the juvenile justice system and the issue has been a priority for a number of Catholic and faith-based organizations. Writing the court's majority opinion, Justice Elena Kagan cited the court's previous recognition of the “mitigat­ing qualities of youth" and the fact that it is "a time of immaturity, irresponsibility, impetuousness[,] and recklessness.... It is a moment and condition of life when a person may be most susceptible to influence and to psychological damage."

In other words, people make mistakes as children that they wouldn't make as adults, and the reasons can range from simple lack of maturity to poor decision making ability to mental and emotional trauma stemming from the conditions in which they are raised. In some cases, depending on the offender and their crime(s), they may need to be placed in prison for a long time. In other cases, they might be able to turn their life around as adults and become contributing members of society. But the law as it was written painted all juvenile offenders as irredeemable, leading to the court's decision today.

Of course, Christians know that no human being is without sin, and none of us are irredeemable. The court's ruling doesn't mean that someone who commits a serious crime as a youth won't spend their entire life in prison. But it does mean they can get a second chance, the chance to atone for their sins, to be forgiven, and to lead a better life. That's an opportunity we all deserve--after all, it is why Jesus died on the cross.