After a historic last week of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 session, we witnessed several rulings that significantly impacted Americans across a wide range of issues. The healthcare reform ruling may have dominated the headlines, but another decision announced last week, “Miller v. Alabama,” is not receiving much attention despite its likely effects on a particularly vulnerable population. Miller’s potential positive impact on African American children involved with the criminal justice system is great; this is particularly the case given their overrepresentation among juveniles sentenced as adults in jails and prisons.
Miller v. Alabama involves two cases from Arkansas and Alabama where two 14-year-olds were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Because of the Supreme Court’s decision last week, these youth now have the possibility of being paroled because as studies show, these children often do not fully comprehend the severity of their actions nor do they have the ability to control their impulses. Enacting this egregious sentence on a minor fails to take into account that many youth in the juvenile justice system suffer from mental disorders, often requiring treatment.
What several of my colleagues in California and the Supreme Court did realize is that juveniles are much different than adults. A child’s underdeveloped brain should not be judged with the same standards as a person with substantially more life experience, more understanding and more comprehension. According to the Supreme Court, children’s brain functions cause them to experience life with “an underdeveloped sense of responsibility”, recklessness and heedless risk-taking.
In addition, the juvenile justice system was created to provide an alternate means of discipline to account for the cognitive differences between adults and children, not blindly punish youth for actions they are not able to completely comprehend. Sentencing a child to life without the possibility of parole is an extremely harsh sentence for a young person, who may not have the mental capacity, simply because of their age, to understand the severity of their crime and the repercussions they might face.
A bill that is scheduled for a vote in California in the coming days, Senate Bill 9, will ensure a case is reviewed for parole opportunities once a juvenile reaches adulthood. While juveniles who commit crimes must be held appropriately accountable for their actions, an unduly severe punishment that gives them no hope of rehabilitation at such a young age perverts the rehabilitative purpose of our juvenile justice system. The Supreme Court’s decision should provide the framework for effective legislation that will benefit California’s juvenile justice process.
Karen Bass represents the 33rd Congressional District, which includes Los Angeles, Hollywood and Culver City and was the 67th Speaker of the California Assembly.
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