The US Supreme Court has sentenced juveniles as young as thirteen years old to prison for life without parole for non homicidal crimes. Bryan Stevenson, a liberal lawyer and author of Just Mercy, has fought many cases dealing with juvenile punishments, and argues the perspective that juvenile sentencing is too harsh. Stephanos Bibas, a judge of the US Court, comes from the conservative side, yet agrees with Stevenson that juveniles are being punished unfairly. Stevenson and Bibas both agree on the principle point that life sentences for juveniles are cruel and break the eighth amendment of the US constitution, but a fair punishment should be ruled in juvenile cases. Bibas and Stevenson come from opposite sides of politics, yet they both share a common ground. By providing a learning experience like community services and proper education on the inside of the prison to teach the difference between right and wrong, juveniles in the world today would be able to stay on their feet and not lose their opportunity to do great things in life because of one mistake. The common ground found between both Stevenson and Bibas provides what I believe is a foundation for the basic principles of how to punish juveniles both just and mercifully.
Juveniles should be given punishments that are effective but not prolonged, as burdening a child by sentencing them with a life sentence is far too drastic. Stephanos Bibas makes the point that people should be sentenced with “swift, certain sanctions that pay back victims while knitting wrongdoers back into the social fabric”(Bibas 11). Bibas believes that these punishments should be short time period punishments enabling children who have made a mistake to have a second chance and re-enter into society. Stevenson agrees with Bibas as he also believes there should be punishments for crimes, but not to the degree of a life sentence. For example, in the case Jackson v. Hobbs, where Jackson and two other friends were under the influence and decided to rob a convenience store, which lead to one of Jackson’s friends freaking out and shooting the store clerk (Stevenson). Jackson was only an accomplice to the killer, yet he was facing life in prison without parole at age fourteen. Stevenson argued this case and agreed that the children should be given tough punishments, going as far as saying “they can even impose sentences that give them the authority to maintain control of the lives of these children for the rest of their natural lives.”(Liptak) However Stevenson draws the line there, as he also argues that the court should not punish these children “with no hope of release, that would be incompatible with child status”(Liptak). Stevenson’s argument sets up a principle that children who have committed horrible crimes should be held accountable, but they should be punished in a way that leads the children in the right direction. Stevenson and Bibas are both in agreement that these children have committed horrible crimes, but they also agree that the underdeveloped minds of juveniles show how they cannot comprehend the results of their actions. The court should provide a much more just punishment, giving these kids hope that they can make something of their lives in the future, rather than letting them rot away in a cell for the rest of their lives.
Both political sides, liberal Stevenson and conservative Bibas, are in agreement highlighting how even two polar ends can agree that juveniles should not be given life sentences. Stevenson and Bibas lay out what I believe to be guidelines as to how to punish children who have made a terrible mistake. Providing these kids with a learning opportunity instead of a death sentence would be most beneficial for both the child and society as a whole. Children being taught what opportunities they have ahead of them gives them the chance to learn what they did wrong and how they can turn their lives around and better the world as a whole. Bibas points out that by making these offenders finish their education along with providing real jobs would be a better way to punish juveniles (Bibas 14). Here, Bibas provides a foundation for a step toward helping these children learn from their mistake, rather than brutally punishing them by giving them no hope of a future. Providing education along with real work gives juveniles the necessary skills to help them integrate back into society.
Critics of Stevenson and Bibas’s approach toward the life sentences of juveniles might respond by saying when a juvenile kills someone they are not only taking the life of the victim, but they are also hurting everyone that that person has touched in their lifetime. Using this line of thought they might conclude that giving a life sentence is the only equitable response to a life being taken. This perspective dates back to the “Mesopotamian culture that prospered long before the Bible was written or the civilizations of the Greeks or Romans flowered” (Hammurabi’s), where they coined the phrase “an eye for an eye”(Hammurabi’s). However, much like the Mesopotamians, that school of thought is ancient history. The matter of juvenile imprisonment goes far beyond the realm of these tit for tat arguments. These teenagers don’t know what they are doing. For example, “most studies show that abstract reasoning, memory, and the formal capacity for planning are fully developed by age 15 or 16”(Harvard), demonstrating that many of these murders are being committed before the brain is fully developed. Teenagers are also experiencing an influx of hormones that lead to terrible decisions, such as drunk driving and narcotics. While I’m not preaching that juveniles should be let off with a slap on the wrist, life in prison is simply dehumanizing and wrong when given to a juvenile. For this reason, I remain in defense of Bibas and Stevenson, as both writers provide ample reasoning for why we need to find an alternative approach to dealing with juvenile punishment.
Whether or not juveniles should be tried as an adult seems like a simple question to answer, yet people still believe in harsh punishments for children such as life sentences. The idea that this type of punishment would teach them a lesson is both unconstitutional and irrational. Stevenson and Bibas both believe that while juveniles shouldn’t have their lives taken away, they still should be given some type of punishment that helps the kids learn while in prison. Stevenson and Bibas ideas both help set up the foundational principles of how to punish juveniles. I believe these principles will lead to a better system of punishment for juveniles that commit murder.
Bibas, Stephanos. “The Truth about Mass Incarceration.” National Review, 16 Sept. 2015, https://www.nationalreview.com/2015/09/mass-incarceration-prison-reform/.
“Hammurabi’s Code: An Eye for an Eye.” Ushistory.org, Independence Hall Association, www.ushistory.org/civ/4c.asp.
Harvard Health Publishing. “The Adolescent Brain: Beyond Raging Hormones.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/the-adolescent-brain-beyond-raging-hormones.
Liptak, Adam. “Supreme Court Revisits Issue of Harsh Sentences for Juveniles.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Mar. 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/03/21/us/supreme-court-revisits-issue-of-sentences-for-juveniles.html.
Stevenson, Bryan. “Why American Prisons Owe Their Cruelty to Slavery.” The New York Times, 14 Aug. 2019. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/prison-industrial-complex-slavery-racism.html.