The Supreme Court and the Sentencing of Juveniles in the United States: Reaffirming the Distinctiveness of Youth
Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Clinics of North America, Vol. 20, No. 3, pp. 431-445, July 2011
16 Pages Posted: 20 Jun 2011
Date Written: June 20, 2011
In the 21st century’s first decade, the U.S. Supreme Court has set two key constitutionally-based limits to punishment of juveniles. In Roper v. Simmons (2005) the Court barred imposition of the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles, and in Graham v. Florida (2010) it forbade life imprisonment without possibility of parole (LWOP) for juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses. Both decisions held these penalties violated the Eight Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment because they were disproportionate given juveniles’ distinctive cognitive, psychosocial and neuroanatomical characteristics. Roper and Graham reflect two decades’ long trends, one legal and one clinical, whose interaction will control the legal system’s approach to juvenile justice for some time. Since 1980 more children, at younger ages, became legally susceptible to much harsher punishments (through trial as adults), yet over the same period clinical skepticism concerning the cognitive, psychosocial, and neuroanatomical development of youth that was required for the legal process, and the appropriateness of these sentences, grew. In Roper and Graham the Court resolved this paradox by siding clearly with clinicians. The Court’s adoption of a developmental model of culpability, with heavy reliance on cognitive psychological research concerning risk-taking, susceptibility to peer pressure and mutability of character, as well as MRI and fMRI studies of adolescent and young adult brain development, may produce future challenges to lengthy juvenile sentences, to broad provisions allowing transfer of juveniles for trial as adults and even possibly to younger juveniles’ competence to stand trial.
Keywords: Sentencing, Juveniles, Proportionality, Developmental, Imprisonment
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