Teenagers and the law

Yesterday’s ruling by the Supreme Court included some important nuances on the legal understanding of teenagers, their standing in our country, and how the courts view their decision-making abilities.

Whether you work with teenagers or have one at home– I’ve done my best to synthesize this nuance in both the argument and the opinion of the court. I’m highlighting in red negative words about teenagers abilities, highlighting in blue words which recognize teenage capabilities. That way you can see the dance the courts are making visually.

The argument made to the Supreme Court

To start with the first set of cases: Roper and Graham establish that children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, we explained, “they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.” Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 17). Those cases relied on three significant gaps between juveniles and adults. First, children have a “‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,’” leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. Roper, 543 U. S., at 569. Second, children “are more vulnerable . . . to negative influences and outside pressures,”including from their family and peers; they have limited“contro[l] over their own environment” and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. Ibid. And third, a child’s character is not as “well formed” as an adult’s; his traits are “less fixed” and his actions less likely to be “evidence of irretrievable depravity.” Id., at 570. 

Our decisions rested not only on common sense—on what “any parent knows”—but on science and social science as well. Id., at 569. In Roper, we cited studies showing that “‘[o]nly a relatively small proportion of adolescents’” who engage in illegal activity “‘develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior.’” Id., at 570 (quoting Steinberg & Scott, Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty, 58 Am. Psychologist 1009, 1014 (2003)). And in Graham, we noted that “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds”—for example, in “parts of the brain involved in behavior control.” 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 17).5 We reasoned that those findings—of transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences—both lessened a child’s “moral culpability” and enhanced the prospect that, as the years go by and neurological development occurs, his “‘deficiencies will be reformed.’” Id., at ___ (slip op., at 18) (quoting Roper, 543 U. S., at 570). 

Roper and Graham emphasized that the distinctive at- tributes of youth diminish the penological justificationsfor imposing the harshest sentences on juvenile offenders, even when they commit terrible crimes. Because “‘[t]he heart of the retribution rationale’” relates to an offender’s blame worthiness, “‘the case for retribution is not as strong with a minor as with an adult.’” Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 20–21) (quoting Tison v. Arizona, 481 U. S. 137, 149 (1987); Roper, 543 U. S., at 571). Nor can deterrence do the work in this context, because “‘the same characteristics that render juveniles less culpable than adults’”—their immaturity, recklessness, and impetuosity—make them less likely to consider potential punishment. Graham, 560 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 21) (quoting Roper, 543 U. S., at 571). Similarly, incapacitation could not support the life-without-parole sentence in Graham: Deciding that a “juvenile offender forever will be a danger to society” would require “mak[ing] a judgment that [he] is incorrigible”—but “‘incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth.’” (pages 8-10)

The courts ruling

Although we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime inprison. (page 17)


This is from the Supreme Courts ruling on Miller vs. Alabama, a challenge to mandatory life sentences to juvenile murderers. In other words, judges can now take into account the circumstances of the individuals background, their mental ability to understand the crime, their ability to discontinue involvement in the crime, and family life.

Obviously, I think this is good news for teenagers in general because the courts indicate that adults (and our laws) should not apply to teenagers in the same way, regardless of age.

Why this matters

  1. GOOD The Supreme Court’s ruling indicates that maturity and cognitive ability to grasp the seriousness of risk is not fixed by age. All 17 year olds are not the same, all 14 year olds are not the same.
  2. GOOD The Supreme Court removes state laws mandatory sentencing for juvenile offenders, even in states where minors are tried as adults for serious felonies. This doesn’t say they can’t get life sentences but it does say that the courts are allowed to to examine the maturity level and family circumstances of individual offenders.
  3. GOOD While nuanced, the language of the majority opinion affirms the capabilities of teenagers. Justice Kagan makes a distinction between a juvenile raised in a stable home with one raised in a chaotic home. She also affirms that the mental capacity to understand cause and effect varies widely between a 14 year old and 17 year old. Did they have the ability to walk away before a crime was committed? Or were they able to grasp the risk to themselves prior to committing a crime? Those are questions of capability.
  4. GOOD The Supreme Court affirms that since a juvenile cannot legally defend themselves in the same way, because of their constitutional definition as a child, that it’s unfair to use the same sentencing guidelines as an adult defendant. That acknowledges the justice gap as its unfair to give someone a life sentence when they can’t properly defend themselves.

What else do you see in the courts ruling yesterday that I’m missing?

Photo credit: Charles Pence via Flickr (Creative Commons)





One response to “Teenagers and the law”

  1. pmview Avatar

    After working seven years in our local high school for the Dean of Students, I have seen my share of youth behaviour ranging from really silly to extremely dangerous. I watched ‘tweens write lengthy apologies to say they were sorry. Then, there was one so violent we vacated our office while the SRO (Service Resource Officer) handcuffed the student and booked at the police station. Squad cars were once something unusual at school. Some will pour out water-works with crying-on-demand to get what they want only to turn-it-off when that fails to work. At the end of this past semester before finals, a student told me flat out, in a monotone voice that was whisper quiet for my ears alone, he planned on moving out of his home. The next week he was not at school, marked absent, and my phone calls home went unanswered by the single parent. He failed to go to any of his finals. I reported this incident and his attendance to the guidance counselor and the Dean. They communicate to the SRO and Administration. I prayerfully consider each child’s situation. Our staff has been responsive and we have been sadden by those rare cases when a child has not gotten the help they have needed. Each major incident that’s reported in the media further impacts our staff deeply. Whether you are a teacher in the classroom or a secretary behind the counter, each educator or support personnel constantly takes into account the circumstances, the individual’s background, their mental ability, family life, becomes a crucial piece of the puzzle. Many times I have coordinated support documents to outplacement services, Juvenile Court Officers, Juvenile case managers and police officers assigned to ‘juvi-cases.’ The state reporting requirements for out-of-school suspensions have escallated recently with implementation of the State’s unfunded mandates forced on all of our local school districts. I am grateful to learn that the Supreme Court ruling has better defined the legal definition of juveniles. However, much of the work requires a local level of ‘means-testing’ that requires school funding to implement.

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