The Opportunity to Change

The U.S. Supreme Court decided yesterday that sentencing young people to life in prison without the possibility of parole for nonhomicide crimes violates the Constitution’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment provision. The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, upholds basic constitutional principles of opportunity, rehabilitation, and the capacity of young people to grow and change over time.

“A State is not required to guarantee eventual freedom to a juvenile offender convicted of a nonhomicide crime,” the Court said. “What the State must do, however, is give defendants … some meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.”

Requiring the possibility of parole for youth in nonhomicide crimes is the right decision under the Constitution, and the right outcome for our country. It is no guarantee of release in any particular case, but, rather, a guarantee that our criminal justice systems must provide for careful review to determine whether, years later, young offenders continue to pose a threat to the community.

The decision also recognizes that young people’s brains and emotions are still developing. They must be held accountable for crimes they commit, while acknowledging their greater capacity for change.

The states should respond to this decision not only by abolishing the sentence of life without possibility of parole for young people—which they must do under yesterday’s decision—but also by improving their rehabilitation programs for all people in prison. Better preparing incarcerated people to reenter and participate productively in society is a smart response to the Court’s decision, and is in our national interest.

Read more at The Opportunity Agenda website.

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