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Published: Monday, 5/11/2009

Too young to discard

THE fundamental principle the Supreme Court applied to a 2005 ruling that declared the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles should apply to life imprisonment sentences meted out to juveniles convicted of nonlethal crimes.

When the high court takes up two Florida cases later this year, it should decide against life sentences without chance of parole for criminal teens.

There is a good reason juveniles and adults are usually handled separately in the judicial system.

Children who commit crimes should be punished in some fashion, but they are held to lesser standards than adult lawbreakers because their poor judgment and misbehavior reflect their age and their still-developing maturity.

Much as it seems that juveniles are committing ever more serious crimes, most are simply too young to be permanently discarded by society via life sentences without possibility of parole.

In the two cases the court will hear, one defendant was 13 at the time he allegedly raped a 72-year-old Pensacola woman, and the other was 17 when he was charged with participating in a series of robberies.

Both had been involved in earlier crimes and both got life in prison without parole when convicted and sentenced as adults. But those sentences, their lawyers argue, are precisely the kind of extreme measures that, for adolescents, fall under the Eighth Amendment's injunction against cruel and unusual punishment.

The Supreme Court used that yardstick when outlawing capital punishment for juvenile offenders. Now it should do the same for life without parole for individuals who are, despite the seriousness of their crimes, still children.



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