Life-without-parole for juveniles
Rules, standards, and individualized justice
In Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court yesterday outlawed life-without-parole for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide crimes, holding that such sentences violated the 8th’s Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual” punishment. The argument involves two steps, neither of which involves much explicit political philosophy. First, following Roper, the Court looks at State practices to assess the prevalance of the given punishment. While it may seem odd to examine current policies in order to determine timeless constitutional principles, the concept of “cruel” maybe and certainly that of “unusual” are indeed somewhat contextual. Second, the Court examines the 8th Amendment’s text, history, meaning, and purpose, which means applying previous Supreme Court cases. Embedded within this interpretative second step is some genuine political philosophy. In the end, the court held that a juvenile could indeed have the maturity and moral culpability to deserve life-without-parole for a nonhomicide crimes, but that the process of delineating these individuals from the greater number that don’t have the requisite culpability is fraught with error. And to such a degree that the Constitution demands a categorical prohibition for the class of juveniles as a whole.
To be clear: Following the court’s logic, without the categorical prohibition, many juvenile would receive unjust sentences, because they don’t have the requisite moral culpability; but then again, with the prohibition, some will received lighter sentences then they deserve. It’s the old issue that when you draw a line and set a hard rule, it will be in some ways over- and under-inclusive. Whereas before there existed a standard in those states without their own prohibitory rule, now there is a national rule for all States.
From an abstract philosophical perspective, it makes sense to have standards for punishment, so each person can get exactly what they deserve. But in the real world, standards leave open the door for inequality (unequal time for the same crime), corruption, and bias, such that individualized justice is better served by a categorical rule.