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'Elite' Supreme Court sides with science and juveniles

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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.

If the science of brain development made it unconstitutional to put juveniles to death – or to put them away for life, for crimes short of murder – than why wouldn’t it also invalidate life sentences for murder itself? The court’s dissenting minority didn’t say. Rather, it ruled that it could not interfere with a law simply because the measure flouts scientific knowledge.

“Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers, giving them a greater chance to reform themselves at the risk that they will kill again,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “But that is not our decision to make.”

That sentence strikes me as cruel, in and of itself. Science might have discovered new facts about the nature – and the limits – of adolescent judgment and self-control, with enormous implications for calculating criminal responsibility. But if state lawmakers want to ignore these discoveries, Mr. Roberts says, the court won’t get in the way.

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