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Should we keep locking kids up and throwing away the keys? Supreme Court to decide

Among the many atrocities of our country’s criminal justice system is one particularly shameful statistic: The U.S. stands alone as the only nation that sentences youth under 18 to life in prison without parole. Today the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the stories of two people given such sentences, and will decide whether the punishment violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment barring cruel and unusual punishment.

Though the conservative majority on the court tends to come down squarely on the side of tough love for criminals, even it has defined certain limits: In 2008, it declared the death penalty as a punishment for child rape to be unconstitutional. The court found that for individual offenses, (as opposed to crimes against the state, such as espionage), the death penalty is unreasonable for crimes “where the victim’s life was not taken.”

Though the vast majority of juvenile criminals handed life sentences for non-homicides are from Florida – including the two offenders whose cases the court will hear – seven other states currently have such prisoners. One of those states, California, might ban the practice regardless of the Supreme Court case with a bill that would allow for sentencing rehearings after 10 years. The U.N., too, has condemned life sentences for the young – voting 173-1 to ban them (one guess as to who the lone dissenting country was).

Juveniles and adults are not the same. Study after study (as well as, you know, basic logic) has confirmed that their brains operate differently. Juveniles are certainly capable of committing heinous crimes – but they’re also much more susceptible to peer pressure, and capable of change.

The people and organizations studying the issue have found disturbing details involving kids who are locked up for life:

In a particularly cruel twist, Human Rights Watch found in one report that in many cases where juveniles and adults were prosecuted together, the youth offender received the weightier sentence.

An Equal Justice Initiative study found that “Children sentenced to die in prison have in common the disturbing failure of police, family courts, child protection agencies, foster systems, and health care providers to treat and protect them. Their crimes occur in the midst of crisis, often resulting from desperate, misguided attempts to protect themselves.”

Apart from America, the entire world believes that kids – even those who commit horrible offenses – are redeemable. Here’s hoping the Supreme Court forces us to join that list.

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Posted in: News by SoulRiser on November 15, 2009 @ 6:41 PM

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