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.