Teenagers — even those who commit terrible crimes — aren’t necessarily the same people they will become as adults. Experts have long known that juvenile brain development in areas like empathy, judgment and understanding of consequences can continue into a person’s early 20s.
That’s why, for crimes committed when the offender was a juvenile, the U.S. Supreme Court has banned the death penalty since 2005, and life-without-parole sentences since 2012. The worst offenses committed as a juvenile can and should be punished into adulthood — but they shouldn’t necessarily be punished unendingly if the offender can eventually demonstrate the positive development that maturity can bring.
Of course, those reforms don’t mean much if parole boards sidestep them and effectively impose life-without-parole sentences by refusing to give inmates even the opportunity to demonstrate they’ve changed. A federal judge has ruled that Missouri parole officials have been doing just that, and has correctly ordered them to stop.
U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey ruled that Missouri inmates sentenced to life for crimes they committed before they were 18 are being denied “the meaningful and realistic opportunity to secure release upon demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” She gave state officials 60 days to show how they’re going to fix that.
In response to the Supreme Court, a 2016 Missouri law says inmates sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles can seek parole after 25 years. But the latest case describes parole hearings that are perfunctory exercises, with parole boards clearly not even assessing whether the inmates have changed in the years since they were teenagers.
Hearings are “stacked against the prisoners,” said a statement from the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in St. Louis, which brought the case along with attorneys from Husch Blackwell on behalf of four inmates. They told the court the inmates’ lawyers were barred from even presenting evidence of maturity and rehabilitation. They claim some 90 inmates are affected.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that individuals who commit crimes as juveniles must be provided a realistic opportunity for release from prison based on demonstrated rehabilitation,” Amy Breihan, the justice center’s director, said in the statement. Yet in almost every parole decision, “the Missouri Parole Board has denied parole not based on lack of rehabilitation but on the circumstances of the underlying offense. That flies in the face of the Supreme Court’s mandate.”
Heinous crimes should never be minimized, but neither should the gravity of a lifelong punishment for something someone did as a child. There are circumstances where such a punishment might be justified, but refusing to give an inmate even the opportunity to demonstrate change is wrong. Missouri officials should make a good-faith effort to implement the court’s order.