Yesterday’sSupreme Court decision, banning sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders who have not committed murder, was right on. As our volume Juvenile Justice demonstrates, over a decade of social science research has demonstrated that adolescents lack the emotional and mental maturity of adults and this needs to be considered when making decisions about culpability and punishment.
Compared to adults, adolescents are impulsive, short-sighted, and easily influenced by peers. In general, they do not think ahead, and they are unduly influenced by the potential rewards of risky decisions and less concerned about potential costs. Most crimes committed by juveniles are impulsive, stupid, non-violent acts that occur when they are with their friends, not calculated decisions that are well thought through.
Therefore, punitive policies often do not deter juveniles from crime because the same factors that lead adolescents to commit crimes in the first place make them less likely to be deterred by punitive sanctions. To be deterred by the prospect of a long sentence, or incarceration, or transfer into the adult system, a teenager needs to think long-term, like an adult. This is not to say that juvenile offenders should be not held accountable for their crimes. They absolutely should – but in a way that recognizes the offenders’ youth and gives them a second chance. Life without parole for non-homicide offenses does not take into account that juvenile criminals may well mature into law abiding adults with the proper treatment and interventions. To refuse to offer these and lock teens up for life is indeed cruel and unusual punishment.