No doubt, Terrance Graham was a wayward, rebellious child. At 16, he helped rob a restaurant in Florida and was sentenced to a year in jail and three years’ probation. But Graham violated that probation when he was 17, and, with two older accomplices, burst into a man’s home and robbed him at gunpoint. For that, he was ordered to spend the rest of his life in jail without any chance for parole.
His age and location are crucial here. This is the only nation where people spend a lifetime in jail for noncapital crimes committed as juveniles, and Florida is the epicenter of this distinction, with more people like Graham locked up than any other state.
Not any more. The Supreme Court ruled on May 17 that denying the possibility of parole to someone so young is an unconstitutional infringement of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The decision marks a breakthrough for our common understanding of what it means to be a child. A previous ruling in 2005 barring the execution of juvenile offenders legitimized the argument that adolescents lack the judgment and impulse control of adults and therefore cannot be held as culpable for the crimes they commit. But that was only in the context of the death penalty. Scientific research since then has expanded our knowledge of brain development to the point that a majority of justices extended the logic to apply beyond capital crimes, realizing that it is “cruel and unusual” to deny adolescents the opportunity to reform.
“The court recognized that kids aren’t yet the people they will become,” Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, told the Forward.
With this ruling, the court also reaffirmed what it has called “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Even if lifelong sentences were used in the 18th century, as Justice Clarence Thomas asserted in his dissent, that doesn’t mean they should be tolerated in the 21st century. Why strive to improve society if ancient shackles can never be broken?
The echoes in Jewish text are unmistakable. Graham was, indeed, the “rebellious child” — akin to the biblical example of a son who behaves abhorrently, defies his parents, and is sentenced to die by stoning. So clearly did this cruel edict bother later generations of rabbis that the Talmud goes to great lengths to place limits on its implementation, eventually concluding: “The case of the wayward and rebellious child never was and never will be.”
To deny a youngster any opportunity for rehabilitation and reform is not only cruel to the individual, it deprives society of a vision of progress. As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his concurrence: “We learn, sometimes, from our mistakes.”