IN A 5-4 ruling last week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that young people who are serving life terms for crimes other than killing their victims must have an opportunity for parole. To do otherwise, the majority said, is a violation of the Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
No one on the nation's highest court is interested in exempting young people from moral and legal responsibility for paying for their crimes.
What the justices decided was missing from the law was the recognition that even the most incorrigible young person can mature for the better and eventually represent a reduced danger to society.
The Supreme Court heard the case of Terrance Graham, a 23-year-old Florida man convicted of armed robberies when he was 16 and 17.
Under the law struck down by the justices, it wouldn't matter how well-behaved Graham had been in prison as someone serving life for a noncapital crime. He would never be considered for parole because of the law.
"The state has denied [Graham] any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a nonhomicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, which upheld the primacy of the Eighth Amendment.
Graham was convicted in Florida, one of a few states that sentences juveniles to life in prison when they are convicted of crimes short of homicide. An estimated 129 inmates across the country could be affected by the ruling.
The estimated 2,000 other young people who are serving life sentences without possibility of parole in America's prisons have been convicted of murder and aren't eligible for consideration.
Justice Clarence Thomas complained in his dissent that the majority was guilty of imposing "its own sense of morality and retributive justice" by ruling that the life sentences violate the Eighth Amendment.
In a way, Justice Thomas is correct; a higher morality is being imposed on mean-spirited laws.
But it is the morality of the Constitution, not the angry passions of the electorate.
Fortunately, a majority on the Supreme Court still recognizes proportional justice, rationality, and law that doesn't turn up its nose at the possibility of redemption.