Is it unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment to send a juvenile to prison for life, with no possibility of parole, for a crime short of murder?
That's the question the U.S. Supreme Court confronted Monday in two cases from Florida.
In one, a 13-year-old offender was sentenced to life without parole for raping a 72-year-old woman. He was a hardened case -- he'd already served juvenile time for other offenses -- but he still was only 13 years old.
In the other case, a 16-year-old committed a violent burglary, served a year's sentence, then was arrested for a home-invasion robbery. That charge was never proven in court. He received his life-without-parole sentence for violating probation on his first conviction.
The two youths were serious offenders and they deserved serious sentences. But locking up juveniles for life without the possibility of parole for non-fatal crimes is such an extreme and unusual penalty that it stains the American system of justice.
The cry "adult time for adult crime" ignores the fact that juveniles don't yet have adult judgment. Even in older adolescents, the parts of their brains that handle impulse control, responsibility, forward thinking and other socially important behavior have not fully matured, according to generally accepted medical research given to the U.S. Supreme Court. Most adults know someone who was out of control as a teenager but later became a responsible adult.
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