Children are Different: Constitutional Values and Juvenile Justice Policy
By Gabrielle Nygaard, February 11 2013
The emerging principle that “children are different” from adult offenders will direct the future course of juvenile justice says a new paper in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law. In the essay, Elizabeth S. Scott examines how three Supreme Court opinions have created a special status for juveniles under the Eighth Amendment, the science backing this, and the implications for juvenile crime regulation.
Scott identifies the “children are different” approach in the cases Miller v. Alabama, Graham v. Florida and Roper v. Simmons, three instances in the last seven years of the Supreme Court holding that harsh criminal sentences―life without parole and the death penalty―on juvenile offenders violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. According to Scott, these opinions are a marked departure from hostile policies of the 90s ignoring the differences between juveniles and adults, and one which has been spurred by advances in developmental science.
A growing body of research illustrates specific behavioral and neurobiological differences between adolescents and adults that also distinguish them as offenders. The Court focused on three factors: adolescents’ tendency for taking risks without considering future consequences, their vulnerability to external influences, particularly peers, and the transient nature of these and other developmental influences. These traits set juveniles apart from adults, and thereby warrant their differential treatment. They also speak to adolescents’ unique capacity for reform, pressing the case for developmentally based correctional programs over the costly and often less effective route of imprisonment.
Scott lists four key lessons for lawmakers arising from this trend: