On Monday, November 9, 2009, the Supreme Court heard two related cases in which it was proposed that sentences of life without parole in non-homicide crimes committed by juveniles be judged cruel and unusual punishment. In Graham v Florida and ‘Sullivan v Florida, men who were 13 and 17 at the time of their crimes are serving sentences of life without parole. The cases, heard separately but one after the other, posit that, since the landmark Roper decision in 2005 abolished the death penalty for juvenile offenders, life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment in non-homicide cases, since it is the most severe sentence possible.
I am not going to consider the legal arguments or the particular crimes in these cases. The source listed below will link you to all relevant information, including presented briefs and amicus briefs submitted for both sides. I will look at one particular amicus brief, and then consider some of the information we have about brain development in adolescence. I then will make some concluding observations.
Adolescence is a time of great physical and psychological change. It begins with the onset of sexual maturation, which is accompanied by rapid growth and hormonal changes. More recently scientists have discovered that the brain also undergoes a series of transformations. The brain’s gray matter – the cerebral cortex – grows and changes during this time. In particular, the pre-frontal cortex shr.ows a burst of new growth just prior to puberty, and this is then refined by a “pruning” process that continues into the early 20’s.
The pre-frontal cortex is the region just behind the forehead. It is the executive center of the brain and controls such functions as planning, organization, working memory, and the modulation of emotion. Adolescents are able to learn large amounts of new infomation and during these years, impulse control improves and the older adolescent is better able to take that extra moment to reconsider a decision before taking action.
On the other hand, adolescents are more likely to take serious risks, and to respond to situations emotionally rather than intellectually. While their cognitive center is reaching its adult functioning, there is a disproportionate stimulation of the emotional centers, the acumbens and amygdala which are sub-cortex, white matter, parts of the brain. They are more likely to spend more time with their peers and less with adults, so they are responding to others in similar states of excitability. Mood disorders are likely to surface during adolescence, this period of increased emotional reactivity.
Looking for increased stimulation, adolescents take risks such as using drugs or alcohol, driving while intoxicated, having unprotected sex, carrying weapons, etc. These can and do lead to injury and death, and also to criminal behavior.
A sentence of life without possibility of parole is a sign that society has given up on certain individuals. Yet the particular brain devolopment in adolescents allows for a great deal of learning, and the possibility of responding to positive as well as negative influences. One amicus brief submitted to the Court in these cases came from successful men who had criminal histories as young people, and yet became productive members of society. These include former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, actor Charles Dutton, writers Dwayne Betts and Luis Rodriguez, attorney Terry Ray, software executive and author T. J. Parsell, and former child soldier Ishmael Beah. They tell their stories in this brief. If you read the whole thing as I recommend strongly, prepare to be moved.
These are extraordinary individuals, but their circumstances are not extraordinary. There are many regular citizens with similar stories who follow the law, raise families, make a living.
Though we cannot predict who will or will not change their lives, in the case of adolescents the possiblity for positive growth is strong. I believe telling them we have no hope for them is a self-fulfilling prophesy. We are the only industrialized country that imposes such sentences on young people. Adolescent brain development supports the view that the factors that got them into trouble are the very factors that can lead to positive change.
I hope the Justices’ decision takes all this into account, and makes law take the side of hope.
You can link to the amicus brief I cite from the scotuswiki site. I have been unable to link to it independently. It is called
Brief for Former Juvenile Offenders Charles S. Dutton, Former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R. Dwayne Betts, Luis Rodriguez, Terry K. Ray, T.J. Parsell, And Ishmael Beah in Support of Petitioner