In the last few days of the 2011-2012 term, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that will have a significant change on North Carolina juvenile justice practices.
In the 5-4 decision in the case of Miller v. Alabama, decided June 25, a majority of the justices said that the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment would not allow mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile criminals.
Although the decision is in response to a situation in another state, the reach of a Supreme Court ruling extends across the United States. Right now, there are 88 people in North Carolina prisons who were sentenced to life without parole for murders they committed before they were 18 years old.
It’s important to recognize that the decision does not forbid a life sentence for juveniles, only that state law can’t require a life sentence. A judge must have the freedom to impose another punishment. And that’s precisely where North Carolina criminal law comes into conflict with the Supreme Court ruling: by state law, youths aged 16 and 17 must be charged as adults, and the minimum sentence for first degree murder is life without parole, essentially making that a mandatory sentence for older juvenile defendants.
Depending on the circumstances of the case, children as young as 13 years old can be tried as adults, too.
When the nation’s juvenile justice system was first set up as an independent alternative to adult criminal justice—in the earliest days of the 20th century—it was in recognition that rehabilitation was a better approach for children. Turning youth over to the punishments of the adult justice system was intended to be rare.
Then, beginning in the 1970s, the nation’s political leaders found they could win favor from voters with “tough on crime” programs, and diversions from juvenile justice became increasingly common. And today, we have the situation where some kids are being locked away until they die from old age in prison—a program of warehousing people for decade after decade, at enormous expense.
In the wake of this Supreme Court decision, a moment has come to rethink the trend toward increasingly punitive treatment of both children and adults. After all, the Court has announced that current practices must change, but it also allows each state to craft its solution as it sees fit. Our legislators in Raleigh now have the opportunity to reshape criminal law in North Carolina for the next generation. We hope they are up to the task.