The Supreme Court got one right today with its 5-4 ruling that juveniles should not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. To rule otherwise would essentially dictate that there is no difference between juvenile offenders and adult offenders.
This decision is consistent with Roper v. Simmons (2005) wherein the Court held that capital punishment for juveniles is unconstitutional.
Sending 14 and 15 year olds to prison signals several things about society. One, we are prepared to give up on minors, and two, Americans are so desensitized to youth violence that it is common to send young offenders to jail with adults for the rest of their lives.
The problem rests in both the political, adversarial nature of our prosecutions as well to many communities where violence is as common as the dusk and the dawn.
Prosecutorial zeal that stressed no chance of rehabilitation – ever– has gone too far. Many of these prosecutions harken back to the 1980s when law enforcement stalked the so-called Black male Super-predator. It perpetrated a myth that today’s prosecutors and many jurors subscribe to: Black men cannot be rehabilitated, therefore extra-long prison sentences are justified even for minors. Clearly, the idea of the Super-predators is a myth, but it is a powerful myth that has saturated the public consciousness.
However, as far as Black America is concerned, this is one instance where, as Lenny McAllister writes, Blacks need to look inwardly at solving the vicious and cyclical problem of violence in the Black community, and not play the blame game by fixating on overzealous prosecutors.
As a 5-4 ruling, this decision is just one justice away from beingoverturned by future courts. That is just as likely regardless of whether or not Barack Obama wins a second term as none of the conservative justices are likely to retire in the next four years. Any new justices Obama puts on the Supreme Court will likely just be replacements for progressive justices like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
The best way to reduce the likelihood of this correct decision being overturned in the future is reducing juvenile violence. Communities that do not adequately invest in both their schools and after-school programs and have large numbers of absentee parents are just asking for trouble. Until we re-orient our priorities, the courts will very likely, and unfortunately, revisit this issue.