The United States has a juvenile crime problem that far exceeds the juvenile crime problems of other Western countries. Over the years, state legislatures have responded to this increase in the volume and severity of juvenile crime by providing for sentences that effectively punish offenders, incapacitate them, and deter serious offenses. They have determined by an overwhelming majority that fulfilling their duty to protect their citizens requires making available life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders.
The sentence stands up to constitutional scrutiny. All state supreme courts and federal courts that have considered the question have concluded that life without parole for juvenile offenders does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court’s proportionality standard—the highest level of scrutiny it has applied to non-capital punishment—does not prohibit states from punishing murder and other serious offenses with lengthy prison terms; the Court has said that judges should second-guess state legislatures’ determinations of criminal punishment only in the rarest cases where the punishment is wholly disproportionate to the harm of the offense.
Most juvenile offenders should not and do not have their cases adjudicated in the adult criminal justice system. Every state has a juvenile justice system, and those courts handle the majority of crimes committed by juveniles. But some crimes evince characteristics that push them beyond the leniency otherwise afforded to juveniles: cruelty, wantonness, a complete disregard for the lives of others. Some of these offenders are tried as adults, and a small proportion of those tried as adults are sentenced to life without parole—the strongest sentence available to express society’s disapproval—to incapacitate the criminal and deter the most serious offenses.
For years, opponents of this sentence have been lobbying for its abolition, but any change in policy in this area should be based on facts and real numbers, not on manufactured data, slanted stories, and flagrant misinterpretations of the law. Legislators should view these activists’ glossy reports with extreme skepticism: They are less academic studies than they are lobbyists’ brochures.
Nevertheless, lobbying to effect change through the democratic process is preferable to judicial activism, which the activists now seek to promote. A fair look at the Constitution, whether from the perspective of original meaning or from the perspective of current interpretation, provides no basis for overruling the democratic processes of 43 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Congress. Neither do international law, even under broad and sweeping interpretations of its terms, or the misleading and sometimes just wrong statistics and stories marshaled in activists’ studies.
Used sparingly, as it is, life without parole is an effective and lawful sentence for the worst juvenile offenders. On the merits, it has a place in our laws.
Charles D. Stimson is Senior Legal Fellow and Andrew M. Grossman is Senior Legal Policy Analyst in the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.