Not so Justice Alito or Chief Justice John Roberts, who also dissented in the mandatory-sentencing decision. Both judges simply ignored the mounting scientific evidence that adolescents lack the same reasoning power and impulse control as adults. They didn’t say the science was ambiguous, or wrong; instead, they said it was irrelevant. And that’s worse.
After all, brain research was invoked in the court’s 2005 decision invalidating the death penalty for people under 18. The research also figured in its 2010 ruling striking down life sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder.
And since those cases, as the court’s majority noted on Monday, evidence about delayed adolescent brain development has become even stronger. “‘It is increasingly clear that adolescent brains are not yet fully mature in regions and systems related to higher-order executive functions such as impulse control, planning ahead, and risk avoidance,” the court wrote, quoting a brief by the American Psychological Association.
If that’s true, then it’s cruel for states – and the federal government – to mandate that every adolescent murderer gets jailed for life. Alas, it’s not unusual. More than 2,500 people are currently serving life without parole for murders they committed before they were 18. And about 2,100 of them were convicted in states where these sentences were mandatory.