Last time I talked about how emotion and reasoning skills differ on a developmental level between adolescents and adults. I’d like to revisit that because something recently changed in the legal landscape that takes those concepts into account. I’m talking about this Supreme Court decision:
If you don’t want to read it in its entirety, here’s the quick version: Those who were convicted of murder when they were juveniles and have life sentences without parole may be reconsidered for parole or re-sentenced. Teenagers/juveniles are more prone to impulsive decision making, and a life sentence as a form of societal protection is unjust. Simply put: people grow up and change. While some might balk at the idea of reconsidering prison sentences in general, especially for murders, based on the concepts we talked about in my last blog I agree with the court’s decision here.
The court decision emphasizes that by applying a life sentence without parole to a teenager, we would be denying them the opportunity to show some kind of redemption. If we’re going to argue that the prison system is intended for rehabilitation, then what our prison sentence was saying to a prisoner is, “Sit there and think about what you did, for life, and while you do that as an adult, try to remember how you thought as a teen, and then don’t think like a teen anymore.” THAT simply doesn’t make sense and is unjust, so it’s changing.
The plaintiff of the case, Henry Montgomery, committed a murder when he was 17 years old and as of this writing is 69. During his time in the prison system he experienced an “evolution from a troubled, misguided youth to a model member of the prison community” and “[notably] that he was a coach on the prison boxing team, had worked in the prison’s silk-screen program, and had offered advice to younger inmates.”
I would be curious to hear Henry’s story of how he experienced himself in prison. Part of the rulings in 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama that preceded this current case included language on deciding whether juveniles reflected “transient immaturity” and were able to mature. I’m also curious how we could create an operational definition to decide when juveniles have moved past “transient immaturity”. And I’m curious how we can decide that sooner than a 52-year prison sentence.
If we are going to argue that myelination is the last step from an “adolescent” brain into an “adult” brain, one possible method is to just check people’s prefrontal cortexes with an MRI. Or just interview these inmates and get to know what it was like for them. Either one of these are cheaper than incarcerating people for decades.