NEXT WEEK, the Supreme Court will be confronted with two cases that question whether juveniles convicted of murder may be locked away forever, without even a possibility of parole.
The first case involves Kuntrell Jackson, who, on the spur of the moment in 1999, decided to rob an Arkansas video store with two older boys. He stayed outside during most of the robbery but was charged with murder because the store clerk was shot and killed during the attempt.
The second case involves Evan Miller, a boy so brutalized by alcoholic and drug-addicted parents that he tried to kill himself when he was only 5. He periodically ran into trouble with the law as a minor. Then he brutally murdered his neighbor in an Alabama trailer park. Mr. Miller and an older teenage friend devised a scheme to “get the man drunk and rob him,” prosecutors say. When the intoxicated man fought back, Mr. Miller and his friend beat him with a baseball bat. The boys left but returned a short while later to “cover up the evidence” by setting the trailer on fire. Police found the charred remains of the 52-year-old victim, who was unable to escape because he had been immobilized by the beatings.
Mr. Jackson and Mr. Miller were both 14 when they committed serious and — in Mr. Miller’s case especially — grievously disturbing crimes.
They are two of 79 inmates in this country serving sentences of life without parole for crimes committed when they were 13 or 14 years old. Both merited stiff punishment, but neither deserved to be permanently discarded by society by being sentenced to life imprisonment without the chance for eventual release.
Within the past few years, the Supreme Court has struck down the death penalty for minors and barred sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes other than homicides. The justices pointed to a plethora of scientific evidence that showed that minors are not yet emotionally, psychologically or intellectually fully developed and do not have the same capacity as most adults to inhibit impulses or weigh consequences. As a result, they should not be subjected to the kinds of severe sentences that may be appropriate for adults who commit the same offenses. The same principles should apply in the cases of Mr. Jackson and Mr. Miller, to give juveniles convicted of murder a chance at eventual freedom.
Public safety need not be threatened. Parole boards and governors may refuse to release a juvenile offender sentenced to life unless they believe he has paid a sufficient price for his crimes and has rehabilitated himself enough to reintegrate into society. Even with the possibility of parole, some juvenile offenders may find themselves behind bars for the rest of their lives. But to deny them a chance to make their case for freedom flies in the face of the best medical science available and borders on the immoral.