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The Times
  • Editorial: New rules for young murderers

  • In declaring mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders unconstitutional, the Supreme Court this week reaffirmed two important principles.

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  • In declaring mandatory sentences of life without parole for juvenile offenders unconstitutional, the Supreme Court this week reaffirmed two important principles.
    The first is one every parent knows well: Children are different from adults. In recent years, science has confirmed those differences, including some that bear directly on crime, culpability and punishment.
    The adolescent mind matures more slowly than the body, and among the last to develop, scientists say, are impulse control, empathy and the ability to foresee the consequences of actions. There’s a reason adolescence is associated with thoughtlessness, recklessness and aggression. The other thing both parents and scientists know about adolescence is that eventually, most people outgrow it.
    This distinction has always been the foundation of juvenile law. Children are not expected to be as responsible as adults, so they can’t be as guilty. Because they are still growing, the law is quicker to forgive children for crimes committed and is more likely to assume they can be rehabilitated for re-entry to society as responsible adults.
    The second principle affirmed Monday is that every situation is different, and that judges should be empowered to make sure the punishment fits the crime and the criminal.
    The court didn’t say all sentences of life without parole were unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Judges may still impose that penalty under state laws when the circumstances merit. But it’s another matter for state legislatures to make the sentence mandatory, in effect sentencing young people for crimes that have yet to be committed, let alone tried.
    According to figures provided to news organizations by the court, about 2,500 people are behind bars for life with no chance of parole for murders they committed, or for which they were present, before their 18th birthday. More than 2,000 of them are there because of state mandates.
    One of those is John Odgren, who was 16 when he stabbed a fellow student to death in a bathroom at Lincoln-Sudbury High School in Massachusetts.
    It was obvious from evidence presented at the trial that Odgren was a seriously disturbed young man. Since his arrest, he has been held at Bridgewater State Hospital, where he receives treatment for mental health problems.
    We’re in no position to guess whether he’ll ever be healthy enough to understand his actions and no longer be a threat. Monday’s ruling doesn’t mean he’ll ever be freed. It simply means another sentencing hearing will be held, with a judge deciding whether a parole board will be allowed to periodically review his progress.
    That’s a reasonable outcome, one that recognizes juvenile criminals are in a special category, and that judges and juries can distinguish those who are irredeemable from those who might be able to salvage their lives.
    Page 2 of 2 - -- The MetroWest Daily News (Mass.)
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