A Week of Stunning Victories for Youth Justice

It’s been a remarkable decade for juvenile justice reform in the United States. But the week of January 25, 2016, stands out.

On Monday, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, requiring that its 2012 ruling banning mandatory life without parole in Miller v. Alabama be applied retroactively. That same day, President Obama published an opinion piece in the Washington Post decrying the use of solitary confinement and announcing that he had signed an executive order banning the practice for juveniles in the federal prison system.

With dizzying speed in the realm of constitutional reform, the Supreme Court has carved out a special place for juveniles in U.S. jurisprudence—most notably in the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. From banning the death penalty for children in 2005 to prohibiting life without parole for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses in 2010, and now establishing that no child may serve the unconstitutional sentence of mandatory life without parole, even in homicide cases, the court has moved the goal posts on acceptable sentencing practices for children in the justice system.

In Miller v. Alabama, Justice Elena Kagan declared that “children are not simply miniature adults.” Her statement echoed Justice Kennedy’s observation in Graham v. Florida that criminal laws that failed to account for the unique attributes of youth would likely fail under current constitutional analysis.

Simply put, kids are different, and these differences are particularly relevant in determining how we punish children. Following Miller, lower courts split on the reach of the ruling, with a majority applying it retroactively but several courts declining to do so. The Supreme Court has settled that debate with its ruling in Montgomery.

Now, as many as 2,000 individuals sentenced to mandatory life without parole for homicides they committed when they were under the age of 18 are entitled to a resentencing hearing or parole eligibility. This group of prisoners includes individuals who were sentenced as far back as the 1950s in some states. But Montgomery’s reach could be even greater, as Justice Kennedy forcefully underscored the restrictions the court placed on life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in Miller, limiting them to the rare and uncommon instances where the youth is “permanently incorrigible” or “irredeemably corrupt.”

As most experts would attest, this is an exceptionally high bar. Adolescence is defined by its transient nature—a dynamic rather than fixed period of human development that is simply a part of an individual’s long journey to adulthood and maturation. In the worlds of science and criminology, the child is not father to the man; most children will cease to offend as early as their 20s and will see their own characters evolve and change as they pass from childhood to adulthood. Permitting life without parole for this tiny sliver of the juvenile population should pose challenges to prosecutors, who should be required to prove that a particular juvenile fits that characterization before a sentence can be imposed.

President Obama’s ban on solitary confinement for juveniles, though long overdue, falls squarely inside this new constitutional framework. Pointedly, the president let stand solitary confinement for adult inmates, albeit with drastically reduced time limits according to the guidance provided with the executive order.

The practice should be banned entirely for adults as well—it is government-sanctioned inhumane treatment no matter whom it is imposed upon—but the willingness to proscribe the practice for children only, for now, reflects how entrenched this “kids are different” doctrine has become in justice policy. While limited to the federal prison system, presidential leadership in imagining a more humane justice system is unprecedented, and hugely welcome.

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Richard Wershe is 28 years into a life sentence for a non-violent drug offense which occurred when he was a minor (17 years old). Rick was arrested for doing what a drug task force had previously encouraged and paid him to do starting when he was just 14 years old. Why should Rick have to spend another day behind bars for the mistakes he made as a kid??

"In May 1987, when he was 17, Wershe was charged with possession with intent to deliver eight kilos of cocaine, which police had found stashed near his house following a traffic stop. He had the misfortune of being convicted and sentenced under one of the harshest drug statutes ever conceived in the United States, Michigan’s so-called 650 Lifer law, a 1978 act that mandated an automatic prison term of life without parole for the possession of 650 grams or more of cocaine. (The average time served for murder in state prisons in the 1980s was less than 10 years.)

Sentencing juvenile offenders to life without parole for non-homicide crimes was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010, by which point such sentences were already exceedingly rare; the court was able to locate only 129 inmates serving them nationwide. Michigan eventually acknowledged the failures of the 650 Lifer statute—the governor who signed it into law, William G. Milliken, has called it the greatest mistake of his career—and rolled it back in 1998. Those already serving time became parole eligible and began to be released. Wershe is the only person sentenced under the old law who is still in prison for a crime committed as a juvenile. Prominent and violent kingpins and enforcers from Wershe’s day in Detroit have long since been freed. And yet Wershe has remained incarcerated, for more than 27 years." - From 'The Trials of White Boy Rick' by Evan Hughes. - http://i64.tinypic.com/121aelk.jpg

I am a volunteer at a juvenile hall.I have known many incarcerated young men and women,This is great news to me and all of the young people who believe they have a hopeless life.

This is both good and neccesary. Did the Open Society play a signiicant part in htis?

Ralph Land

I believe in a third choice between sending juveniles to adult prisons and sending them to juvenile detention centres.

Those juveniles convicted as adults should be sent to their own special prisons separate from adult prisons and juvenile detention centres to protect them from adult violence, and because the idea of them being charged as adults is illogical, as a violent criminal or psychopath is no more intelligent, I would think, then an ordinary criminal.

So how could he be charged as an adult? I don't mean to offend victims' families, but it's true.

Now, I don't see these people as equivalent to ordinary criminals, but instead of being charged as adults when they're juveniles, they should be charged as juveniles but as they committed serious crimes or their crimes were heinous enough to merit adult prison, they should be sent to their own prisons.

There would be separate prisons for juvenile rapists, murderers, those convicted of assault, and burglars, so none of these groups would harm the other.

Also, prepubescents, pubescents, and adolescents will get their own prisons (with those prisons in turn being divided into prisons for rapists, murderers, those convicted of assault, and burglars) to prevent the young from being vulnerable to the older criminals.

I proposed this idea to my Grade 11 law teacher back in 2013, minus the idea for separate prisons for rapists, murderers, etcetera.

That being said, I fully support the idea of solitary confinement in those special prisons for juveniles and for juvenile rapists, murderers, etc., and I fully support the idea of children being given the death penalty.

Children have shown to be murderers in the past, and a few years ago there was an article in the International Express (the international version of the Express and Mail papers) which mentioned that EIGHT-YEAR-OLD BOYS had COMMITTED RAPE OF A MALE CLASSMATE.

They were not charged or named, sadly, due to their age. Now, I know that seven-year-olds don't understand what they have done when they kill someone, but children who are older do, and therefore they should receive a just punishment.

Children whom are too young to understand what they have done should be charged with assault.

I'm the Founder of an Organization-Young Gent Society, Inc. that is presenting mentoring workshops to young men ages 12-24 that's incarcerated in the New York Juvenile/Criminal injustice system.. This is Awesome. These young people need HOPE, GUIDANCE and a SUPPORT SYSTEM to assist them in becoming assets to society.

There is no question that this is wonderful news. JLWOP is a cruel sentence precisely because it ignores the massive potential for change in these offenders. But the Miller v. Alabama decision didn't go far enough. There remains prisoners incarcerated with JLWOP sentences for crimes that were not mandatory.

One such person is Kelly Dara, who is serving JLWOP for crimes committed when she was just seventeen. For these prisoners, the only hope for potential release remains clemency. For over twenty years Kelly has languished behind bars and she would be a prison reform success story if it were not for her sentence. So if ending JLWOP is important to you, please support those who have fallen through the cracks. You can support Kelly at:


Please don't let these prisoners remain forgotten.

With more than two thousand children imprisoned without parole, the US has been out of kilter with the rest of the world, which has less than 20. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibits imprisoning children without the possibility of parole, so this was yet another instance of the US failing to comply with international standards and, in so doing, behaving worse than many countries in which the rule of law is absent. The Supreme Court's decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana is long overdue; but very welcome. This still leaves many youths jailed for years without trial or conviction in the US. So, now let's see habeas corpus and the prohibition against self-incrimination/admission of guilt under the duress of plea bargaining properly restored.

As a child ,actions are sometimes done without thinking of consequences,but with that being said,everybody deserves another chance!

This is long overdue and it should apply for adults as well. It is absolutely inhumane to put anyone in solitary confinement. It brings creates deep psychological problems for anyone. Unless it is a maniac, serial killer, sociopath, or pedophile anyone finding those descriptions solitary confinement should be banned

Laws are nice, but if there is no outside back-up from a group or person things have been known to full through the cracks. This must be funded by city, state or Washington, DC. Volunteers are very important but not used 100% . The family and outside persons should also be involved.

Obviously, not one of you voting FOR THIS have ever had to deal with a crime that was committed by a juvenile or even not a juvenile. I currently work at a juvenile detention facility AND have had to also live the fact that a 'juvenile' murdered three (3) of my immediate family members. For the life of me I can not understand how you could EVER EVEN take this into consideration. I could have understood for crimes of a lesser nature than MURDER - but this is completely beyond any one ruling I have ever seen before. I am confused by this entire - entire thing even being taken into consideration. Please also note that by me working at a Juvenile Detention Center - I treat them no different than anybody else. When the judge or jury makes their decision - THAT IS WHAT IT IS. They are still treated no different. How can YOU go BACK AND CHANGE THIS??? How can YOU change what a jury has decided? I am completely SHOCKED BY THIS ENTIRE action.

I too possess a background where I have seen juveniles commit crimes. One such person murdered an entire family at the age of 16 and I was at his trial and saw the coldness in his eyes. To say that coldness will always be there is a rather large assumption considering the fact that you don't know who that kid will be in 20 to 30 years. I also know of another juvenile that was sentenced to die in prison for being an accessory to murder. She wasn't there, she never wanted it to happen, and she will die in prison anyway. There is also caprice in the justice system. Another juvenile that KNEW she was driving her friends to commit a drive-by shooting where the intent was to kill the victim received only 8 years. The kicker? Both were sentenced by the exact same judge. Only the first one had a media circus swirling around her when she was sentenced. It is a sin to put a kid in prison and then leave them to rot because you don't have the guts to take a second look at them a couple of decades later. My state will take a 14-year-old and lock them up until the day that they die in prison. Why not just put a bullet in their head and spare the cost of incarcerating them? Oh, that's right. It would be cruel. It is equally cruel to expect that 14-year-old child to never grow up and mature. Will all of them grow up? Sadly, no. But if we are to be a just society, we ought to at least take a second look at them in a couple of decades instead of consigning them to the ash heap of humanity.

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