Two important actions could bring more common sense and compassion to the sentencing of juveniles convicted of murder and to the treatment of those in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that its 2012 ruling banning life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders must be applied retroactively.
That could mean juvenile offenders, including over 70 in North Carolina, could be given a chance to present to courts evidence showing they can be rehabilitated and should have a chance to exit prison before their lives are over.
North Carolina put a law on the books about 20 years ago that under “structured sentencing” those convicted of first-degree murder were automatically sentenced to life without parole. Now the Supreme Court has upended that. The change comes as the result of challenges to such laws based on new scientific evidence that the brains of adolescents, and thus their judgment, are not fully formed as teenagers.
This is a good ruling on the part of the high court, though it may prompt angry reactions from the families of victims. That’s understandable among people who lost a loved one to a murder. But it is not the job of courts to deliver revenge for victims and their families. The courts are about, and only about, justice.
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North Carolina should seek out those prisoners to whom this ruling applies and move ahead with reviewing their sentences.
President Obama also has struck a blow for young offenders by banning solitary confinement for those under 18 in federal prisons. The order also applies to those convicted of nonserious crimes.
The president rightly says that solitary confinement contributes to the development of mental problems for young inmates. They are not fully formed adults, after all. Locking them away for extended periods by themselves doesn’t help their rehabilitation. Rather, it causes many to suffer delusions and escalates their sense of alienation and hopelessness.
“Solitary” has long been used as a punishment by prison officials, and to be fair, there are inmates who are simply out of control and a threat to themselves and others. In those cases, officials have to protect the larger population – and their own guards for that matter.
But in those cases involving the youngest inmates, officials do not need to go to the “solitary” solution without trying other forms of rehabilitation.
The crimes of many young offenders are terrible, to be sure. They need to be incarcerated. But to take someone who is a teenager and lock him away forever only gives up on a young person who has time to turn his life around.