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Brain Science Behind Youth Life Sentence Ruling


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, millions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, as well as others who love, work with or just appreciate their LGBT friends and colleagues, are observing June as Pride Month. We'll talk about the history of the gay rights movement from the author of a new book called "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution." That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, we turn back to the U.S. Supreme Court. Now, most of the headlines around Monday's decisions focused on the court's ruling on Arizona's tough immigration law, but there was also a ruling that could have serious implications for the way the most serious juvenile offenders are sentenced.

The justices voted 5 to 4 to strike down mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of murder. The ruling has the potential to change the sentences of an estimated 2,000 prisoners around the country.

We wanted to talk more about that, so we've called upon Paul Butler. He is a professor of law at George Washington University. He's also the author of "Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice."

Professor Butler, thanks so much for joining us once again.

PAUL BUTLER: Hey, Michel. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: Now, I think the ruling might have come as a surprise to some observers because of this court's conservative majority, but you said you were not surprised. Tell us more about why not.

BUTLER: Because this is part of a series of cases in which the court has looked carefully at children who are accused of serious crimes and has given them more rights than adults. It's looked at the science and really common sense. In this opinion, Justice Kagan - she wrote it - she said any parent knows. Any parent knows that children have different kinds of judgment than adults do and so all the courts have been doing is taking that into account.

MARTIN: You're saying that the science - could you talk a little bit more about the science behind the Supreme Court's decision is that they actually are in line with the contemporary thinking about this.

BUTLER: Yeah. You know, so the earlier cases - one had to do with whether kids could get the death penalty if it wasn't - well, could they get the death penalty at all? The court said, no. Another opinion was about whether - if it wasn't murder, whether kids could get life without parole. And in both of those cases and in this one, the court said, looking at science, brains develop differently and brain development isn't complete until you're in your 20s.

And, certainly, for people who are 14 and 15, they don't have the maturity, the judgment, the appreciation of risk, even the self-control as adults. And so the law should take that into account when we're considering whether kids are eligible for the ultimate punishment.

MARTIN: Now, in the case of the defendants at the heart of this ruling, both were 14 at the time of their crimes. In one case, the defendant didn't actually kill the victim. He was part of a group that robbed a store and somebody else actually fired the fatal shot. I think I was wondering what this means to people who have already been sentenced. Does that mean that their sentences have to be revisited now?

BUTLER: Not necessarily. That will be the next issue that the court will consider. Whenever it makes a judgment about sentencing, it applies to that one case, but, Michel, we've got 2,500 children now who are locked up without parole. When you look at other countries, we're off the charts, just like we are with incarceration, generally.

So, certainly, will those kids - will their lawyers make a plea? Hey, court, you've now said that mandatory life without parole is unconstitutional. Can my kid at least get a hearing? And I think judges will be sympathetic to that request.

MARTIN: But it doesn't outlaw life sentences for juveniles. Is that right?

BUTLER: So important. It doesn't even outlaw life without parole. The only thing the court decided yesterday was that mandatory life without parole. So if a state passes a law that says any child who commits first-degree murder must go to prison for the rest of her life, that's unconstitutional. What the court said is that, in individual cases, a judge has to look at all the factors and she can still impose life if, in that case, she finds it necessary. But what the Constitution requires for children is individual assessments, looking at the whole background, the way that the kid grew up, you know, the factors surrounding the case.

MARTIN: What were the arguments against the majority? I would be curious about that since you said that you feel that this ruling is in line with the contemporary thinking, particularly the latest scientific thinking. And, if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our guest is Paul Butler. He's a professor of law at George Washington University. He's heading to Georgetown in the fall. He's the author of "Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice."

So, Paul, what were the arguments against, if you don't mind my asking?

BUTLER: No, Michel. Actually, I'm glad you asked because it was a great oral argument. Bryan Stevenson argued the case. He's kind of like the Thurgood Marshall of our day. He argues a lot of criminal civil rights cases. So he was arguing on behalf of the children. It was a 5-4 decision. So, you know, it was a close case.

The conservative justices had some concerns. The main one is kind of this geeky legal concern about who gets to set sentences and whether it's appropriate for the court to review a sentence after a state lawmaker has set it. So the conservative justices said, we're overreaching. Judges don't have this power. That's the lawmakers' job, whether we like it or not.

And then Justice Alito - one of the most conservative - he said, well, gee, are you saying, if someone who's 17 years, nine months old - are you saying that we should treat him like a 14-year-old? And Bryan Stevenson - he was like, yes. That's what I'm saying because he's still a kid.

Justice Alito felt so strongly that the court got it wrong here that he actually read his dissent from the bench yesterday. That's something that justices only do when they feel really strongly that the court got it wrong.

MARTIN: One of things, though, Paul - and we only have about a minute left - that I was curious about is that has no one ever made the argument that juveniles are not allowed - no matter how brilliant they are - to serve on juries, so that we don't make an argument that - well, you are a genius, so you get to serve on a jury, but we do try children as adults, arguing that they need to be culpable in an adult fashion for their crimes, even though we don't give them the privileges of adulthood. And I was wondering if anyone has ever made that argument.

BUTLER: You know, people make that argument. What the court says is, if you think that you should try to persuade the legislature, it's not the Supreme Court's job to make a decision about what the appropriate punishment for any crime is. You know, it's a big issue, just not with kids, but with any adults.

Our sentences for virtually every crime are way more than in Western Europe, any other country that we usually compare ourselves to. So the court's always being asked, is this fair? Does the punishment fit the crime? And what the Supreme Court does is pass the buck. It says, it's not our job. With children, though, finally, they're not passing the buck.

MARTIN: Paul Butler is a professor of law at George Washington University. He's heading to Georgetown in the fall. He's the author of "Let's Get Free: The Hip-Hop Theory of Justice," and he was kind enough to join us from NPR's bureau in New York.

Paul Butler, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BUTLER: It's always a pleasure, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.