The U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing two cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, that both involve the constitutionality of life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide.
APA, along with the American Psychiatric Association and the National Association of Social Workers, has submitted an amicus brief presenting psychological research that shows adolescents are less mature than adults in ways that render them less culpable. The brief argues that life sentences without parole violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Much of the brief models the influential document cosubmitted by the APA in 2010, when the court considered Graham v. Florida. In that seminal case, the justices ruled that life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of offenses other than homicide qualified as cruel and unusual punishment. The latest brief updates evidence regarding the juvenile brain and juvenile behaviors, arguing that the research also applies to teens convicted of homicide.
“We also looked closely at specific research on homicide, finding it’s not possible to predict the likelihood of future violent offending in a reliable way,” says Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg, PhD, the lead scientist for the Graham amicus brief who also worked on the latest brief.
Miller and Jackson have the potential to affect more people than Graham. According to a report updated in 2009 by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, 2,574 juveniles were serving life without parole. Of those, only 109 received that sentence for crimes other than homicide, according to a 2009 report by Florida State University.
Both Miller and Jackson involve 14-year-olds serving state-mandated sentences of life without the possibility of parole. Evan Miller was convicted of capital murder in 2003 in Alabama. The victim was beaten before his home was set on fire and he died of smoke inhalation. Kuntrell Jackson was convicted as an accomplice to felony murder in Arkansas. His sentencing followed a 1999 robbery of a video store, during which another boy shot and killed a clerk.
Steinberg says the same research that explains why juveniles shoplift or commit lesser crimes applies equally to homicide cases. “Kids don’t specialize,” he says. “As a category of individuals, teenagers are less able to control their impulses and think ahead and resist pressure from others engaging in an antisocial act.” In addition, incarcerating teens for life doesn’t necessarily protect the public from future homicides because recidivism among juvenile murderers is the exception and not the rule, according to research by Alex Piquero, PhD, Ashbel Smith Professor of Criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas and an adviser on the brief. The science, he says, shows predicting violent behavior is not always possible nor without error, especially with juveniles’ underdeveloped maturity. “So our task as social scientists and concerned citizens is to figure out which of these kids need prevention efforts in order to thwart offending into adulthood,” Piquero says.
The Supreme Court was expected to hear arguments in Miller and Jackson in March and issue a ruling by summer.
APA praises court’s support for equality
APA is praising the Feb. 7 U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling upholding a U.S. District Court’s 2010 decision overturning Proposition 8. APA had filed a brief in the case (Perry v. Brown) providing the scientific research relevant to the association’s support for marriage equality for same-sex couples. Proposition 8 took away the right of same-sex couples to marry in California that had been granted by the state Supreme Court in 2008.
“Research shows that marriage provides important health and wellness benefits and that same-sex couples are similar to heterosexual couples in essential ways including the fact that they are just as likely as opposite-sex couples to raise mentally healthy, well-adjusted children,” says APA President Suzanne Bennett Johnson, PhD. “There is no scientific basis for denying marriage equality to same-sex couples.”
APA has been a strong advocate for full equal rights for LGBT people for 35 years, based on the social science research on sexual orientation. APA has supported legal benefits for same-sex couples since 1997 and civil marriage for samesex couples since 2004.
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