Imagine you’re in the 7th grade, a time of bullies, teasing and awkwardness, and you’re playing around with your friends, and you shoot one of your friends with a rubber band. The friend may start crying and, in that case, remorse almost immediately follows the action as you think of what might happen if a teacher finds out.
Or the friend might not cry, but instead they will come at with you a shiny welt on their arm and revenge in their eyes and, in that case, you usually run and hope you’re faster. But what if it wasn’t a rubber band — what if it was a gun? What if what you thought was just a fun game suddenly turns so serious that you end up actually shooting your friend? Or that sword-fight you and your friends were having suddenly is no longer fun when one friend brings a real knife to play. When does a child become acutely aware of their actions and the repercussions?
That is the question the Supreme Court unleashed in their 6-3 verdict that they will now retroactively re-evaluate life sentences for juveniles who have committed felonies and were sentenced without parole; those sentenced as teenagers have a chance to argue that they should be released from prison with parole.
This decision began in 2005 when the court ruled out capital punishment for juveniles and ruled that they cannot be locked away for life or crimes other than murder. Then in 2012, the court ruled that juveniles cannot be given life imprisonment without parole. The only problem is that there are many minors that were sentenced to life without parole before the verdict of 2012; that is exactly what this decision is recognizing.
Some states are agreeing to have the sentences reviewed, some are placing mandatory sentences (40 years) before parole can be considered, but some states say that the court’s ruling was not retroactive. Those not in favor of re-evaluating the already determined sentences argue that most changes in criminal law do not apply to settled cases.
Another argument, acknowledged by Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia, is that one of the reasons to end the death penalty for juvenile murders is that life without parole was severe enough punishment. So when does a child become acutely aware of their actions and the repercussions? If the person was sentenced to life in prison as a juvenile, that means that based on the 2005 decision they were found guilty of murder. So now are we saying that forty years in prison is enough punishment for taking another person’s life?
It’s not even simply a question of punishment but also a question of pure scale. In Pennsylvania, one of the states allowing the retroactive reevaluation, there are 500 cases to be re-decided. If we allow these cases to be re-judged are we going to be clogging up the system for the never-ending new cases that come in on a daily basis? Our court system is already a backed-up quagmire that would not benefit from adding hundreds of cases.
Do I think that prisoners should be given the opportunity for parole? Yes, but I also think it has to be after a pre-determined number of years. Yet, I don’t think that retroactive reevaluations are something our court system has time for; cases already stay on stand for months while they decide whether or not the minor is to be tried as an adult or not. I don’t think that the courts can justify devoting that amount of time and resources to the already decided cases; those people have had their time in court, and the sentence they were given was not made lightly. It is just one of the consequences of a crime of that scale. The person becomes subjected to the court system and the laws in place at the time of their verdict.