The ability of children to make important decisions is a matter that continues to befuddle society. The children that Jerry Sandusky assaulted were raped. It was rape because it did not involve consent. It was rape because it could not involve consent. If there had been consent, it would not have been valid. We as a society agree that kids are not capable of that sort of consent.
It goes beyond sexual relationships. Children cannot vote. They cannot be held to binding contracts.
Despite the instructions of Deuteronomy, most of us would decline to join a village squad devoted to the execution of children who wise off to their parents. The middle school kids who recently made news by harassing a somewhat older-than-middle-aged woman on a bus have reportedly received death threats, but most of us would be satisfied with something less drastic.
And age itself is a mitigating factor in the case of most crimes.
But the line does become blurred a bit with the commission of the most terrible of crimes.
Amid news of the Supreme Court striking down most of an Arizona law targeting those of Latino descent with routine demands for citizenship papers, and national expectation of a Court decision on Obamacare, a decision was announced about an Alabama law and an Arkansas law, each mandating life without parole for a couple of 14 year old kids. At least they were 14 at the time of their crimes.
One kid, along with an accomplice, beat and robbed a neighbor, then set his home on fire. The neighbor died in the blaze. Another kid was part of a store robbery. One of the robbers shot and killed a clerk.
Not the sort of kids you'd want to send to bed without supper.
The law pretty much views life without parole as just a hair this side of execution: a life sentence that is nearly a death sentence. Throw away the key is not the same as hang-em-high. But it demands some of the same legal protections.
The Bill of Rights says that cruel and unusual punishments are out of bounds. This is usually interpreted as making sure the punishment fits the crime. Stealing a loaf of bread is clearly against the law. But a ten year sentence for it would be excessive. So it can't be done.
The Supreme Court has held that the commission of a felony that results in death for a victim is the same as murder. So should age be a mitigating circumstance?
And the age of maturity involves a lack of capacity for judgment.
The Alabama law said there would be no consideration of age, not as a matter of age of consent, not as a mitigating factor.
The Supreme Court ruled that the mandatory part of the Alabama law was beyond what the Constitution allows. The Court did not say that kids can't face life without parole. A majority did say that the Judge had to be able to consider the fact that crimes are committed by 14 year old boys. Some lines need to be blurred. Some judgement needs to be exercised. Home life, degree of guilt, and other circumstances need to be considered. Judgment should be within the power of a Judge.
The vote was 5-4.
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