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Supreme Court moves in the right direction on juvenile sentence

It bans life without parole for crimes short of murder. By doing so, the Supreme Court confirms that youths do not think or behave like adults, and should not be treated like adults under the law.

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The Supreme Court took a welcome step Monday when it banned life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes short of murder. The 5-to-4 ruling acknowledges the growing scientific and legal recognition that youths are not simply small adults, and therefore should not be treated like adults under the law.

The ruling also gives juvenile offenders with such a harsh sentence incentive for reform – and thus hope for freedom – during their lifetimes. This has a larger and constructive implication for states: They should focus more on rehabilitation even as budgets push them to cut such efforts and despite a trend to prosecute more juvenile offenders in adult court.

Studies show that teen criminals in community-based programs with caring adults who help train and reform them have a lower rate of returning to crime and also cost taxpayers less than those incarcerated in traditional institutions.

This decision comes five years after the high court overturned the death penalty for those under 18, ruling that immaturity made them less culpable than adults for similar crimes.

This week’s ruling overturned the life-without-parole sentence for Floridian Terrance Graham, who, at 16, helped rob a restaurant and, when he was 17, participated in a home invasion robbery. The majority opinion, written by “swing vote” Justice Anthony Kennedy, drew heavily on the 2005 death penalty case, reiterating that there are “fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds.”

Scientific studies show youths are less able to assess risk, control impulses, and process consequences. That makes traditional penal theory – such as retribution and deterrence – “not adequate” to justify life without parole for youths committing nonhomicide crimes, wrote Justice Kennedy.

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