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A Ruling Against Doing Adult Time for Juvenile Crimes

The Supreme Court gives juveniles sentenced to life in prison a second chance.
(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In 1963, 17-year-old Henry Montgomery shot and killed a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Montgomery was found guilty, and automatically sentenced to life in prison without parole, where he has spent the last five decades of his life. Then, in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that life without parole for juvenile offenders is akin to cruel and unusual punishment, and, as such, violates the Eighth Amendment. But for Montgomery and the thousands of other inmates doing life for crimes committed before they were adults, it was too late; the ruling didn't affect cases for adults who'd already been sentenced for crimes they had committed as teenagers or children. Montgomery petitioned the state of Louisiana, arguing that the decision should be retroactive—which would give Montgomery and other's like him a shot at a second chance for life outside of prison walls. Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor.

Juvenile courts have been a part of the United States' court system since 1899, and there have always been rare cases of minors being tried in adults courts. But the lines between the separate systems really began to blur toward the end of the 20th century, when crime rates were climbing. Last year, in an article for Pacific Standard, Ben DeJarnette traced the origin of state and federal laws encouraging children to be tried as adults to the notion of teenage "superpredators" created by John Dilulio, a political scientist at Princeton University (a term popularized by Hillary Clinton). In the 1990s, lawmakers braced for an impending wave of violence from our nation's teens by intensifying punitive punishments for young offenders. Since then, DeJarnette found, neuroscience research has highlighted several reasons why those laws were short-sighted and unjust:

Beginning in the 1990s, a series of landmark studies found that the brain's frontal lobes, where many decision-making processes occur, continue to develop throughout adolescence. Researchers also learned that the brain's reward-seeking impulses develop faster than its cognitive control systems—an imbalance often compared to firing up a high-speed race car before fully installing the brakes.

Amid these advances in neuroscience, Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg helped untangle the implications for juvenile justice. In a 2009 paper, he outlined the mounting evidence that, especially when faced with peer pressure, teenagers are more likely to take risks and engage in sensation-seeking behaviors, including crime. Steinberg concluded that, because restricted brain function is at least partially to blame for juvenile delinquency, teenage offenders should be held less criminally responsible than adults—an argument that has held sway with the Supreme Court.

Right now, there are approximately 2,500 juvenile lifers—inmates who were sentenced before we knew what we do now about development and culpability. Of particular concern is the fact that the same racial biases that plague the criminal justice system at large are reflected in the juvenile justice system. A 2012 report from the Sentencing Project found that the population of juvenile lifers skews toward black males. Surveying over 1,500 juvenile lifers across the nation between October 2010 and August 2011, the Project found that 97 percent of them were men and a full 60 percent were black. Even more troubling, black juveniles receive life sentences at a rate 10 times higher than that of white juveniles. The majority of survey respondents came from homes marked by abuse, poverty, violence, and parental incarceration. "Because their cases were waived to adult court, these factors—which arguably could mitigate their culpability in the serious crimes for which they were charged—were frequently inadmissible in court proceedings," the report authors wrote.

Indeed, the majority of juvenile lifers—Montgomery included—were handed down a life without parole sentence thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Mandatory minimums insist that, once someone is convicted of certain crimes, the court has little leeway to consider age and other circumstances (creating massive and lasting racial and economic disparities in prison populations in the process). And the consequences of minimum sentences of life without parole extend beyond the country's youngest offenders; it costs nearly $29,000 a year to incarcerate an adult in U.S. federal prisons. The roughly 2,500 juvenile lifers will cost taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion if they indeed serve the rest of their lives behind bars. If a 50-, 60-, or 70-year-old inmate is deemed no longer a threat to public safety, those funds could be better and more responsibly spent elsewhere.

Thousands of inmates—many of them first-time offenders—have had their entire lives defined by a mistake in their youth. This week's Supreme Court decision isn't a get out of jail free card for offenders. It does not guarantee their release, but it at least ensures that the full circumstances of each of their cases can be considered by the courts.