On SCOTUS Cases and Juveniles in Jail for Life

My social work field placement was in the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court in 1989-1990.  A large chunk of my work was conducting a part of the process performed that leads to the clinicians providing information to the jurists so that they can decide whether or not a minor is “amenable” to treatment or other juvenile court options if the minor is “found delinquint” or should be “bound over” to adult court.

I’ve used a lot of quotation marks because these are all terms of art.

I’m not familiar with the two cases to be heard tomorrow in the Supreme Court of the United States (aka SCOTUS), but here is an excellent post at the always excellent SCOTUSblog about the cases.

Like any risk management assessment, it’s almost impossible to be 100% certain that someone won’t ever do something “like that” or that they will absolutely continue to be that dangerous for the rest of their natural life. Just think about some of the most heinous events of the past 12 months – the Holocaust museum shooter, the Fort Hood event, the shooting of Army recruiters, the killing of George Tiller. From the clinical side, we have laws to protect the professionals who make the assessments about whether someone will or will not injure or do worse to others specifically because it is known that they cannot predict with 100% certainty and must be allowed to carry out their professional duties without constant fear of being sued when their assessments prove wrong. (Don’t worry – there is still plenty of room to sue – always, for better or worse.)

But juvenile recidivism is a topic I’ve researched since 1979, when I was in high school, literally (it was my first-ever independent study for a social sciences class). And the fact that 30 years later, this kind of case is coming before the Supreme Court just demonstrates how conflicted we remain and the evidence remains about what to do when juveniles commit crimes.

If anything, that fact alone indicates to me that we leave discretion intact for the jurists with the option to always review a case and so no cases where a sentence of life without parole is handed down to a minor, just as former Republican Senator Alan Simpson has said, he of the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration law that I worked on in the Reagan administration while working at the USDOJ. From Simpson’s WaPo op-ed:

When I was a teen, we rode aimlessly around town, shot things up, started fires and generally raised hell. It was only dumb luck that we never really hurt anyone. At 17, I was caught destroying federal property and was put on probation. For two years, my probation officer visited me and my friends at home, in the pool hall, at school and on the basketball court. He was a wonderful guy who listened and really cared. I did pretty well on probation. At 21, though, I got into a fight in a tough part of town and ended up in jail for hitting a police officer.

I spent only one night in jail, but that was enough. I remember thinking, “I don’t need too much more of this.”

I had a chance to turn my life around, and I took it. This term, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether other young people get that same chance.

When a young person is sent “up the river,” we need to remember that all rivers can change course.

I’d like to see studies about whether the possibility of the life without the possibility of parole sentence has worked as a deterrent. That’s usually the place I start when analyzing this kind of issue – does it actually do what it’s supposed to.

What do you think? Should the option to send a minor to prison without a possibility of parole be eliminated?

2 thoughts on “On SCOTUS Cases and Juveniles in Jail for Life

  1. Jill:

    I know squat about this topic, but I’ve had a chance to work with an OSU professor named Steven Gavazzi who has done a great deal of research in this area:


    Steve and his wife Courtney formed GRADcis as a tool for county juvenile justice professionals who have to decide on courses of action. Check out http://www.gradcis.com.

    Anyway, to answer your question: I think that during that stage of development when the hormones are out of control, and the brain still developing, youth do all kinds of stupid things that they wouldn’t at a later stage of life. To incarcerate someone for the rest of their lives for a mistake made at this time of biological and psychological chaos doesn’t seem fruitful for anyone.

    That’s not to say that there should not be consequences. I think that a great solution is to require such a young offender to join the military and serve for a serious chunk of time, but in a non-combatant role. Work as an orderly in a military hospital. Go help build schools in Iraq with a Navy Seabee unit.


  2. I know from personal experience that a person can turn their life around. There is a huge “but” in a statement like that. There probably is a level of depravity in crime that may indicate that no one could be seen to make enough change to be loose in society. How high would the bar have to be set to free a juvenile who raped and strangled an elderly lady? Pretty high. It is not exactly the sort of crime that qualifies as youthful hijinks or could be passed off to the ignorance of youth.

    A nasty question I’m glad I don’t have the power to actually decide.

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