- Published: November 7, 2012
In July, the Supreme Court undertook the cases Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, both involving murders committed by people under 18 years of age. In the ruling, the court determined that sentencing minors to mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole qualifies as "cruel and unusual punishment", a violation of the 8th Amendment to the Consitution. The vote was close—5 to 4—but was not without precedent: in 2005, the court ruled that minors could not be sentenced to death.
The judges did not justify their decision with typical "common sense" about the immaturity of youth, but rather on scientific results: the brains of young people are fundamentally different than brains of adults in the sense that they are underdeveloped in regions responsible for impulse control and risk avoidance. Therefore, the judgment insists, the culpability of youth cannot be fully pinned on them. Young people simply are not capable of controlling their actions in the same way most healthy adults are.
The court ruling seems to be a step in the right direction, especially in a country where scientific research seems so divorced from the law. However, there are still problems with the ruling. The judges cited evidence that quantifies behavior on a population level, but the courtroom never addresses the population—it addresses the individual. Sweeping laws will only work up to a point: there will be exceptions to every rule, and no two criminals (or people) are alike. What the U.S. really needs for a forward-looking legal system is the ability to assess criminals on the individual level and to prescribe punishment and rehabilitation suitably. So while the protection of youth regarding life sentences is probably a good thing, the decision still endorses the old one-size-fits-all view of psychology—a view the law must soon acknowledge is obsolete.