Conditional Constitutionality

Cruel and unusual punishment prevailed as the Supreme Court addressed juvenile detention.

On April 22, 2021, in a majority 6–3 vote, the Supreme Court decided to allow unrestricted access to life without parole sentences for juveniles as Brett Jones sought a lower sentence from the state of Mississippi. This made the US the only country in the entire world to allow such a harsh punishment for people under the age of 18. This also broke precedents set by the Supreme Court to stand by the freedoms granted to minors in the Constitution. Particularly, in 2005, the use of capital punishment was banned for juvenile offenders in Roper v. Simmons as it was deemed a form of “cruel and unusual punishment.” This was then extended to life without parole sentences in 2012, a decision which was subsequently upheld in 2016. 

Though the decision reached this past month was a painful decision to come to terms with for many, it also isn’t exceedingly surprising as the US continues to embrace the death penalty, a punishment shunned by most progressive countries and primarily handed out in oppressive regimes. Despite the decision’s predictability, it completely strays from the primary purpose of imprisonment of juveniles. Instead of relying solely on subjective readings of the Constitution, the judges should consider other elements such as science when determining the legitimacy of sentences such as the ones they ruled on in Jones vs. Mississippi.

Unyielding, yet flexible at all the wrong times. This is our interpretation of the law. The Supreme Court decision made on April 22 helped solidify our criminal justice system and its fickle nature as our justices addressed an Eighth Amendment case. This case marked a historic day for our lack of understanding of the purposes of imprisonment. In offering justice to one, it is imperative that our system does not impose injustice upon another. 

The sentencing process in the US consists of four main goals. They are retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and incapacitation. The purpose of juvenile detention is primarily related to rehabilitation. It is true that by the usual minimum age of prosecution (10–12), most children have a sense of right and wrong. But, even when they make mistakes, there is usually a chance for redemption. The only exceptions previously made for life without parole sentences concerning juvenile offenders, included cases where they were deemed “beyond hope of rehabilitation.” Though even having this option shows the incapabilities of our system, it ensured that juvenile life sentences would require more than a conviction. They would also require proof of irredeemability. But the decision last Thursday stripped such cases of this extra requirement, with Justice Kavanaugh writing, “No specific finding concerning the defendant’s maturity or capacity for change was required,” for life sentencing.

If our juvenile detention programs’ primary goal is to rehabilitate and treat troubled youths, and they are capable of helping an offender, why are children subject to such cruel sentences? When there is insurmountable evidence that teens are prone to impulsive — sometimes even criminal — behavior, and given that 45 percent are not screened for mental health issues before sentencing, there is a clear lack of willingness to understand the underlying causes of actions committed by many juveniles. 

Some might say that crimes such as murder deserve nothing short of a life sentence without the possibility of parole. But the truth of the matter is that this decision did not take into account any scientific evidence. Instead, the majority opinion relied on misinterpreting the Eighth Amendment. Some suffer PTSD from sexual assault by the very abusers they end up murdering and others find it increasingly difficult to to display socially acceptable behaviors within common settings like school. Despite age and mental health being extremely important to determining if a life sentence without parole is a properly thought-out sentence, the justices this week decided to shift this importance to supposed justice for the victims of the convicted. While it is true that 75 percent of incarcerated youth end up back in prison shortly after, proper investment in therapy and skills-training could keep them out of these facilities. 

The simple fact of the matter is that juvenile detention has become an extension of our prison system which works to attack rather than help its members. As people get older, the repercussions of certain offenses become larger and larger. A very common example that many business professionals and students are aware of is plagiarism. The punishment for such an act ranges from a simple reprimand in kindergarten to expulsion and court cases in adulthood. It is time for these facilities to focus on rehabilitating youth based on mental health evaluations, past trauma, and the criminal offense for which they have been convicted. Our juvenile justice system must not be allowed to give up on mere kids who are determined to be redeemable.

While justice must be duly served to the victim of a crime committed regardless of the age of the perpetrator, we must also go back to the core goals of implementing a juvenile detention system in the first place. The Supreme Court just took a step backwards as it disavowed science on brain development and psychology as they concern juvenile behavior, regardless of whether such behavior is right or wrong. As more talks on proper investment and justice center around science, our courts must embrace these facts when ruling on cases such as Jones vs. Mississippi. The Constitution should work in conjunction with statistics, not in opposition to them.

Art by Angela Liang for the UC San Diego Guardian.