Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Life without parole for juveniles

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a story about Joe Sullivan, who is serving a life sentence for a rape he committed when he was 13. He is now arguing before the Supreme Court, that sentencing a 13-year-old to spend the rest of his life in prison is cruel and unusual punishment.

Today comes this piece on the Criminal Justice blog over at An eye-opening excerpt:

Forty-four U.S. states allow juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole, and there are 2,592 people serving LWOP today in our country for crimes committed as juveniles...

Many would say that a person who has murdered deserves to die. But, like Sullivan, "25 percent of juveniles sentenced to LWOP didn't kill anyone." That's not to say that rape isn't a heinous crime. It is. The question is whether a juvenile, especially a 13-year-old, even has the capacities to make a decision that we otherwise believe to be punishable by death. It's clearly wrong to punish a person for something they didn't fully understand when they were doing, and a terrible shame to foreclose this person's life from the point they were thirteen on.

And then there's this from

[PBS] Reporter Tim O' Brien talks with a Florida judge who says [a particular] sentence is entirely about retribution. That's the telling moment for me. It's not public safety. It's revenge. Is that the purpose of our criminal justice system?

There's a philosophical debate regarding whether punishment is inflicted because people deserve punishment in some metaphysical sense, or because it will serve as a deterrent to lessen the chance others will commit crimes. The answer seems to be a little bit of both, and I'm a bit revolted by this judge's callous admission that the base desire for revenge is the only salient factor.

But there's actually a third side of the philosophical argument, going back to Plato, that argues that punishment is a treatment for the sick. That particular language seems a little quaint, but certainly we have the same beliefs today: after all, it's called the Department of Corrections, not Retribution, not Deterrence. Of course, you never give a person a chance to be rehabilitated if you never let them out of prison.

1 comment:

Yankee Interloper said...

LWOP for juveniles is a terrible policy.

But I'm not sure I agree with the interpretation of the judge's quote from It seems to me "retribution" is -- or can be -- more than mere vengeance. To me, retribution includes the idea that we as a society punish wrongdoing, at least in part, as a way of expressing and reaffirming our common values in light of their transgression. That's not revenge. And it need not be draconian. But it is retributive. And I think we should feel okay about that. Without that idea, there is no rule of law.