Life Sentences for Juevenile Offenders


In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that juvenile offenders guilty cannot constitutionally be incarcerated for life without parole unless guilty of homicide.  Unsurprisingly, this case was decided along liberal/conservative lines with Justice Kennedy authoring the opinion and Justice Roberts concurring in the judgment.

Putting aside whether I agree with the State’s ability to impose life sentences on non-homicidal crimes for juvenile defendants, the larger – and significantly more troubling issue is whether the State’s decision to make these sentencing decisions may violate the Eighth Amendment.  In other words, should the Constitution be interpreted in light of “evolving standards of decency”?  The majority answered this in the affirmative.  The problem though is that these “evolving standards” actually restrict liberty rather than promote state autonomy. 

I understand that that it may appear unseemly at best and barbaric at worst to impose life sentences on those that have not committed murder (and its lesser included offenses).    But does it violate the Constitution?  Is it cruel and unusual punishment?

The Constitution is not a document that changes according to the disposition of its citizens from one generation to the next; and it should not be interpreted as such.  When the Court reserves in itself the power to strike the constitutionality of laws based on current standards, it reaches inconsistent results.  After all, if I think the law is okay and someone else does not like the punishment it’s hard to tell whether or not the law will be upheld.  In a word: the court becomes unpredictable.  It is led by sticking its finger into the air to determine which way the wind is blowing. 

What may be fine one year becomes suspect in the next. 

A state loses part of its autonomy to govern its citizens when select individuals on a court may invoke “changing times” to invalidate a state action.   A constitutional law in one year because impermissible in another.  Rather than pursing a legislative remedy, the court provides the quick fix. 

The outcome may seem appropriate when first used, but circumventing the legislative branch only leads to more trouble down the road.  See: abortion, homosexual marriage, contraceptives, gay “rights” etc.

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One thought on “Life Sentences for Juevenile Offenders

  1. In other words, should the Constitution be interpreted in light of “evolving standards of decency”? The majority answered this in the affirmative. The problem though is that these “evolving standards” actually restrict liberty rather than promote state autonomy.

    I think the answer to this is question unqualifiedly, yes. Were it not for evolving standards of decency a good many people would still be slaves, interracial marriages such as that enjoyed by yours truly would be illegal, and yours truly would not have the right to vote. I’m not saying I don’t have a vested interest…

    That said, I think the stronger point you make is to question the function of the judiciary. It strikes me that the function of the Judicial Branch intended by the Founding Fathers was to ‘check’ the constitutionality of the Legislative Branch. If ‘circumventing the legislative branch,’ as you put it, means telling a legislature that its law is unconstitutional, then it stands to reason that the Courts are functioning precisely as the Founding Fathers intended, no?

    Additionally, the ‘changing times’ argument is a bit overblown, don’t you think? It was not ‘unpredictable’ that the Court might overturn laws prescribing life imprisonment for non-homicidal crimes. Most of the issues that come before the Court are ones of significant Constitutional importance, and even the matters you described (viz., abortion, gay marriage, contraceptives, gay rights) are not unpredictable. It’s entirely predictable that a court might consider these issues. I suppose what is unpredictable is how a court might rule on any of the above. But, really, this unpredictability only supports the point that the courts are functioning as the Founders intended – through an Independent Judiciary that tests the Constitutionality of the policy implications of legislatures.

    Interesting post as always. It just strikes me that “unseemly” and “barbaric” practices patently violate the Constitution, and are by definition cruel and unusual forms of punishment.

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