by Marissa Baly (’12)
Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity/To seize everything you ever wanted-One moment/Would you capture it or just let it slip?
These words from Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” exemplify why juveniles should not be sentenced to life in prison without parole. Teenagers in the U.S. frequently commit crimes for the thrill or because of external circumstances. Too often the consequences are unjust.
Even when a juvenile commits a heinous crime worthy of harsh punishment, the juvenile’s brain is undergoing significant hormonal changes and has not completely developed, leaving room for poor decision-making.
On May 18, 2010 in a 5 to 4 decision, the Supreme Court justices ruled in the case of Graham v. Florida that it was unjust to sentence Terrance Jamar Graham to life in prison without parole. Graham was arrested in Florida for a robbery when he was 16 and then for a home invasion at the age of 17. After the second arrest, Graham was sentenced to life in prison without parole as a juvenile.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote for the majority in this case, said that there are currently “129 juveniles in 11 states, including Virginia, who had not committed homicides but were serving sentences of life without parole.” Seventy-seven of those juveniles are in Florida, facing predicaments similar to those of Graham.
Criminals under eighteen years of age should be allowed a second chance for their mistakes, and should not be compared to or tried as adults. The logical justification, that juveniles are biologically not as mature as adults, has been supported by numerous organizations. Studies that support maintaining the drinking age of twenty-one years provide the argument that a person’s brain does not stop developing until they have reached their mid-20s. If the studies proving incomplete juvenile brain development are legally accepted, why shouldn’t we legally protect teenagers from extreme sentencing while they are still developing?
After the Supreme Court ruled on the Graham v. Florida case, Justice Kennedy wrote, “By denying the defendant [Graham] the right to reenter the community, the state makes an irrevocable judgment about that person’s value and place in society.” Despite his statement, Roberts noted that the Supreme Court was not suggesting get-out-of-jail-free cards for all juveniles. A heinous crime committed by a juvenile should legally result in a life in prison sentence without parole, as mandated by the Constitution. Yet, Terrance Graham and the 128 other juveniles who did not commit such crimes did not pose any greater a threat to society than an adult who probably only served a couple years for the same crimes.
If judges sentence juveniles to life in prison because they believe that locking up the juveniles is the best option, then they are absolutely wrong. The cliché that everybody makes mistakes and that everybody learns from them as well is embedded with truth. If anything, locking up juveniles for life when they commit a non-life-threatening crime (e.g. Terrance Graham) is probably the worst option. Research from the U.S. Department of Justice shows that “youths incarcerated with adults are eight times more likely to commit suicide, five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, and fifty times more likely to be assaulted with a weapon.”
Thus, the imprisonment of juveniles will simply add to the vicious cycle of juveniles committing unlawful acts. Is it really easier to lock up teenagers than to give them a second chance? Is it easier to use taxpayer money to support a juvenile in jail for the rest of their life instead of acquainting him or her with a youth center? In place of allowing life in prison without parole sentences, the U.S. should make an effort to try to reform our youth and provide second chances for them.