Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Supreme Court’s Guide to Good Parenting

When it comes to punishing children, the Supreme Court doesn’t have a clue.

If Americans parented their children the way the Supreme Court parents us, we’d be in deep trouble. If we learned anything at all from Dr. Sears, it was: Be consistent, be coherent, and follow through. Yet over the last few years, as the justices have struggled to figure out whether to treat teenage criminals differently than adults, they have done so with mincing sideways steps, relying on masses of experts at every turn, and laying down markers for the next case that are immediately ignored or contradicted in the next case. I don’t know whether this is the best method for clarifying the Eighth and 14th Amendment prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment, but it’s definitely a violation of the cherished precepts of Dr. Benjamin Spock.

In 2005, in Roper v. Simmons, the court ended the death penalty for any minor convicted of murder, partly relying on the existence of the alternative sentence of life without parole for those juveniles. Five years later, in Graham v. Florida, the court did away with the life-without-parole sentence for juveniles who were guilty of any crimes other than homicide. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before lawyers for juvenile offenders were back at the court asking to eliminate life without parole for kids who had in fact committed murder but were only 14 at the time of their crimes. Indeed Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer for a pair of 14-year-old defendants appealing their sentences at the court today, seems to be tiring of this gradual approach. In his argument this morning, he urges the justices to save themselves—and presumably himself—some time and do away with the life-without-parole sentence for all juveniles under 18 today.

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