Law is frustrating, in that anything to do with the complexity and variability of humans is endlessly challenging. We attempt to find fair answers to questions that may be impossible to answer in a broad way. It’s one thing to say, OK, you’ve done something wrong and society expects you to be punished; it is entirely another when you have to look further into the workings of the perpetrator’s mind, to know if that individual had the capability to understand his or her actions, and if there is any hope of redemption or rehabilitation. We try, or try to try, being wise, strong, and compassionate in our judgments, to try to do right by all. But there is no magic nor perfectly-researched conclusion based on good science and hard experience that can let you see conclusively inside the brain and the character and the future of anyone. How do you know what to do?

The Supreme Court will be looking this term at two cases, Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida, both regarding the constitutionality of life sentences without parole for juveniles where no homicide was committed. The Court already determined in 2005 that juveniles could not be sentenced to death in Roper v. Simmons. In that decision, the court wrote that

"[t]he reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character."
It is almost universally-accepted that the process of moving from child to adult is not just physical, it is also the maturing of the mind. In particular, the ability to develop abstract thought is regarded as a crucial hallmark of adulthood in that one can think, plan, and make choices based upon what may occur but hasn’t yet. Children are of the moment; they are impulsive, egocentric and ego-driven, and often cannot understand the feelings or experiences of others whatsoever, other than in superficial ways. The law in most cases, all over the world, makes exceptions for this in how young offenders are dealt with. If someone is potentially unable to make reasoned and acceptable choices, but may someday be able to, there is some kind of hope that intervention can help.

If you are following the logic and precedent set by Roper, whether or not there was a capital crime committed is not important; the natural instability and inabilities of the non-adult mind is. If you make exception for that in death-penalty cases, the exception must be extended to all others, as the Court is making it clear it believes that juveniles should not be subject to irreversible punishments, based on, bluntly, their relative mental incompetence. But you can see where this starts to get sticky almost immediately. How does one accurately determine mental maturity in any given individual? It is generally thought that this characteristic is in place by the early- to mid-20s, but sometimes can develop much earlier, much later, and sometimes not at all. Who decides who has true competency when chronological age is only one factor? Who decides exactly when in a life someone can be branded a monster, and should never be exposed to the public again?

There are “monsters” out there, people who are so damaged and sick that they cannot stop hurting others. They will keep committing crimes unless prevented from doing so by the justice system or they happen upon their own “monster” and receive a different kind of justice. Are there “bad seeds” out there -- children who were born to prey upon society, with absolutely no chance of change? Probably. But how do you know? The Supreme Court must now look at Joe Harris Sullivan, who was 13 years old when he raped a woman in her 70s and was sentenced to spend the rest of his days in a Florida prison for it. Anyone could agree that Sullivan’s crime is horrifying and disturbing and incredibly extreme. The worst most 13-year-olds do is swear on XBOX Live, try a cigarette, or maybe get in some short fight on the school playfield. It is unthinkable, what Sullivan did, but it happened, and there is no disagreement that he must be severely punished for it. Yet Roper says he is too young to lock up for good. Joe Sullivan may be a monster, but it is possible that he may not be. What do you do with the likely sociopath?

Common human experience and need for payback collide here. Almost anyone can think back to a younger time in their lives where there was a wrong choice made, sometimes something quite serious with terrible consequences, yet changes were eventually made. That wrong choice was not the defining moment nor the predictor of the life to come. It is human nature to offer the benefit of the doubt to others, knowing that all of us are imperfect and that the transition to adulthood is often very rocky. This empathy can immediately dissipate when faced with something like the Sullivan case. Why should this person receive a less-severe sentence for this heinous act than someone else only five years older would get? Can one also assume that if he had the capability for such an awful thing at 13, he would only get worse and worse? How do you hold the 7th grade kid playing Guitar Hero in one hand and the 7th grade rapist in another? A lot of questions. Roper says the Court should now strike down life without parole for juveniles, regardless of the severity of the crime, that there exists some kind of hope still for any child to change.

If only each case came with a crystal ball.