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"Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

--Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

If you've ever been the parent of a teenager, or been around teenagers, or ever were one yourself, then you know . . . . Well, you just know. These aren't the most level-headed creatures ever invented. It might not take much effort to think back to some mistakes many of us made before we turned 21. And not small mistakes at that.

But at 14 years old? At 13 years old? Kids that age are technically teens, sure, but most of us would consider them just children. There are enough studies that show the minds of juveniles aren't fully developed. About a decade ago, a psychology professor at Temple University, Laurence Steinberg, said the teenage brain was like a car with a great accelerator--and terrible brakes. That about sums it up.

This state's Supreme Court recognized that a few days back when it ruled that mandatory life sentences for young people was out of the question, a conclusion that the U.S. Supreme Court came to years ago. But the Arkansas high court now says that the federal court's ruling should be applied retroactively--and dozens of people behind bars in Arkansas now have hope of getting out one day.

Mind, the rulings don't say that a teen who commits a terrible crime can't be put in prison for life without the possibility of parole. What the courts have said is the law can't make those punishments mandatory. A judge or jury can still hear a case and decide to put the kid away for life. They just can't be forced to.

Which makes sense. Mandatory life sentences sound cruel and unusual to us. Why have a jury sit during the sentencing phase if the law requires a certain decision? To quote a supreme court justice on the federal level, Elena Kagan, "Youth matters."

It certainly does. When deciding whether to send somebody barely into his teens off to The Big House until he dies, that decision should be made by living, breathing, reasoning people--with their own souls to think about. Not by some statute in a law book that can neither see nor feel. When a sentence is mandatory, forced, required, there is no leeway for the exercise of human judgment. And judges and jurors are spared the burden of thinking. A life sentence that just clicks into place sounds more like something a robot or computer might be programmed to do.

That's a great way to save time. And lose everything else. Are things like justice and mercy and compassion just details?

And when the nation's top court rules that such mandatory sentences are unconstitutional, of course, of course, of course that ruling should be applied retroactively, and people in prison for life right now for crimes committed as kids should get a shot at re-sentencing. The question many of us had was why some argued otherwise. If it was unconstitutional for a juvenile to be sentenced to a mandatory life sentence in, say, 2010, then what about the guy in the next cell who was sentenced in 1995?

To quote one Arkansas Supreme Court justice, His Honor Robin Wynne, "As it now stands, a juvenile offender sentenced to an unconstitutional mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole by the State of Arkansas has obtained a new sentencing hearing. It would be patently unfair to decline to do so for other prisoners who are similarly situated."

Yes sir. No doubt these mandatory sentences were cruel. Let's hope they become more and more unusual.

If a young person needs to go away for life--if his crime was so terrible that parole should never be a possibility--let human beings make that decision. Save the machines for less important work.

Editorial on 06/29/2015

Print Headline: Young guns

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