The recent Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama, which concerns the imposition of life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders, offers an important opportunity for people of faith to revisit our civic responsibilities with respect to children and youth.
The decision strikes down state laws requiring life-without-parole sentences, ruling that these laws violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment." Such laws, currently on the books in just over half of all states, prevent judicial discretion - the consideration of such mitigating circumstances as age, personal development and situations of prior abuse - in the sentencing of juveniles for crimes for which these states mandate life-without-parole sentences.
No state has ever passed a law directly mandating such sentences for juveniles; rather, the situation arose as states passed laws requiring and/or allowing juveniles to be tried as adults for crimes that also carry the life-without-parole sentencing mandate. The Court's ruling does not require the resentencing of the approximately 2,500 people currently serving life-without-parole sentences handed down to them as juveniles, but it does open the possibility of parole for those who have demonstrated sufficient change to be readmitted into society.
Interestingly, there were no amicus brief filings by religious organizations in this case, as there had been in Sullivan v. Florida/Jackson v. Florida, a 2010 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that life-without-parole sentences in juvenile non-homicide cases constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Weighing in specifically on non-homicide offenses, an amicus brief filed in 2010 by religious leaders and organizations (including Prison Fellowship) noted that their diverse religious traditions all affirmed that "juveniles are still developing and maturing," and "do not grasp the full consequences of their actions, and therefore are less morally culpable for their conduct and less susceptible to deterrents." The brief, filed on behalf of the petitioners, pressed the importance of offering the common values of forgiveness, mercy and compassion to vulnerable populations, including children. The brief argued further that mandatory life-without-parole sentences contradict the religious concept of restorative justice.
The same arguments should apply to homicide cases. The June 2012 ruling does not ban the life-without-parole sentence in a homicide case, but allows for sentences that incorporate the Christian principles of mercy and restorative justice. The ruling will also allow for the consideration of circumstances. As a recent Detroit Free Press editorial noted, in Michigan "almost half of those with such sentences were convicted of aiding and abetting a murder, some receiving harsher sentences than the actual killer."
Mandatory life-without-parole sentences contradict the religious concept of restorative justice.
People of faith ought to bring the principles outlined in the amicus brief to the whole of our civic life, particularly to how we deal with juvenile offense. First, while noting that juveniles "are still developing and maturing," Christians ought to examine whether our religious and civic lives support or hinder youth development. Mono-causal arguments that blame the breakdown of the nuclear family fall short, virtually abdicating any responsibility of the larger community for the well-being of children and youth. Indeed, while parental responsibility remains preeminent, what do we make of Joseph and Mary leaving the temple without Jesus, because "they assumed him to be in the company?” Long before Hilary Clinton, the parents of Jesus functioned in a society where "it takes a village to raise a child." For example, viewing youth ministry as a venue only for specialists gives many churchgoers a convenient "out" in taking responsibility for youth development as a community concern.
Secondly, the common religious virtues of mercy, compassion and forgiveness stand in stark contrast to popular theologies focused on individual personal development, whether in terms of psychological wellness, financial prosperity or formulaic problem solving. Mercy, compassion and forgiveness are, by definition, interpersonal values. However, these are difficult to maintain when Christians reflect the larger culture's focus on the individual.
Lastly, restorative justice, also an interpersonal ethic, challenges what T. Richard Snyder calls "the culture of revenge." Our flesh and the world mask their cries for revenge in the cloak of "bringing people to justice." Christians, however, should understand the difference between justice and revenge and seek the highest form of "making things right," which requires efforts toward restoration and redemption.
The Court's decision enables us all to make religious and civic investment in youth development a priority consistent with the best of our faith tradition. It affirms the possibility of restoration in certain cases, which should be monitored carefully. But it also calls us to a renewed level of responsibility on the preventative side of the ledger.
What Do You Think?
- Do you agree with the recent Supreme Court decision regarding life without parole for juvenile offenders?
- How do you define restorative justice?