Monday, November 9, 2009

Supreme Court: Is a Life Sentence for a Juvenile 'Equat[ing] the Failings of a Minor with Those of an Adult' ?

Two cases may change the way teens are punished
By Bill Mears, CNN
November 9, 2009
"[A] grieving mother uses the memory of her murdered daughter to fight on behalf of victim rights. In his West Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, a paroled teenage killer uses his second chance to mentor at-risk youth. In these separate cases, both the criminals and their victims were juveniles.
Their stories provide the backdrop for an unrelated pair of upcoming Supreme Court appeals over whether juvenile offenders who commit violent felonies deserve tough prison sentences -- especially life without parole.
On Monday the justices will examine whether the Constitution's ban on 'cruel and unusual punishment' should be applied in such cases, and whether young minds, because of their age, have less culpability and greater potential to be reformed.

'These two cases are going to tell us a lot about how far the Supreme Court -- led by Justice [Anthony] Kennedy -- is willing to go in limiting a state's ability to impose incredibly tough sentences on either the young, or in some cases, the mentally retarded,' said Thomas Goldstein, co-founder of Scotusblog and a leading Washington attorney. 'How much is the Supreme Court willing to intervene here?'...

The Supreme Court in 2005 outlawed the death penalty for underage killers, marking a major change in 'national standards' over how to treat this class of offenders.
'It would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed,' Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the 5-4 majority.

Many juvenile justice advocates see promise in Kennedy's words, an indication that the court might apply such legal and moral standards in the non-capital context now before it.

On the other side, victims rights groups say a radical shift in the current juvenile justice system could destroy the legal finality many families seek in healing from tragedy of losing a loved one to violence."
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