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Supreme Court sizes up teens who murder

Two cases involving life sentences for 14-year-olds who murdered will test the Supreme Court's past rulings that teens are not small adults and must be given a chance for redemption.

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T.J. Lane, right, appears in juvenile court March 6 in Chardon, Ohio. The 17-year-old is charged with aggravated murder in the killing of three students at Chardon High School.

Thomas Ondrey/The Plain Dealer/AP Photo

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One measure of how a society balances justice and compassion lies in how it deals with teens who commit crimes. In America, that particular balance has often shifted between the extremes of lock ’em up and let ’em go.

In recent rulings, however, the Supreme Court has tipped the scale toward compassion, allowing the United States to start taking a more consistent and principled path toward adolescent crime. This reflects the progress made in better understanding how teens develop as well as evidence-based programs for successful intervention and treatment.

But the court’s job is still not done.

On Tuesday, it takes up two cases involving life sentences given for murders by 14-year-olds. In one case, a boy did the killing while in the other the boy was an accessory to murder. Both of them are now adults serving sentences of life without parole.

Each new case about teen crime has forced the high court to draw ever-more difficult distinctions on what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” for 13-to-18-year-olds. In these latest cases, both the young age of 14 combined with the fact that courts and legislatures have long considered murder different from other crimes will challenge the nine justices.

But they have good precedents to build on. In 1988, the court banned the death penalty for young people under 16 and then raised the age limit to 18 in 2005. It ended the death penalty for people with mental disabilities in 2002. And two years ago, it banned life-without-parole sentences for those under 18 convicted of crimes short of murder.

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