In almost all states of the United States, thousands of juveniles have been sent to adult prisons without considering the fact that they are not mature enough to undergo similar court proceedings as adults. Furthermore, nearly four thousand children who commit heinous crimes nationwide have been sentenced to life imprisonment without any possibility of parole (Equal Justice Initiative, 2014). Majority of children who are sentenced to life imprisonment for committing heinous crimes in the United States are aged between 12 and 17 years. This means that the juvenile justice system of the United States forces children to die in prison without considering their age and the nature of impact that such sentencing brings into their lives. Although many juveniles who commit heinous crimes have been sentenced to life imprisonment, states should consider making changes in their constitutions to give juveniles a change to undergo rehabilitation and to live spend their adulthood lives outside prison (Equal Justice Initiative, 2014).
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The Constitution should agree with the both scientific and common sense concepts by considering the fact that, children are not biologically similar to adults. In many states, the law prohibits young children under the age of eighteen from using alcohol or cigarettes, signing property leases, joining the military, and voting (Calvin, 2016). This indicates that the law recognizes that juveniles are not mature enough to make complex decisions and to have certain responsibilities. Surprisingly, the same countries that recognize the level of immaturity of juveniles are the same ones that sentence children to life imprisonment without careful analysis like they do to adults. According to Calvin (2016), certain parts of a child’s brain that are used for decision-making are always not fully developed until the child reaches age 20. Gradual growth and maturity of these parts of the brain continue until late 20’s and this is when the child can make decisions like adults. This is clear evidence that states that sentence juveniles to life imprisonment tend to ignore the scientific that a child aged between 12 and 17 is not mature enough to make the right decisions (Calvin, 2016).
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Many nations that sentence juveniles to life imprisonment ignore the capacity of a child to change after being trained to do so. According to Calvin (2016), juveniles below 18 years should not be sentenced to life imprisonment because they have the capacity to change with time and to become good people. This does not mean that juveniles should not be held accountable for their own actions. By giving them an opportunity to undergo rehabilitation, it is clear that the children have been held accountable for their actions and are given time to change their behavior to become goo people in the society. Every form of punishment that juvenile offenders are subjected to must reflect the child’s capacity to change and mature whether the committed crime was heinous or not. As Calvin (2016) points out, criminals aged below 18 years are still developing and the court does not have the capacity to judge the direction of that development. Courts that sentence juveniles to life imprisonment behave as if they already know that children will continue to make crime-related decisions even during adulthood. State laws should be changes to give the judge an opportunity to assess the juvenile’s life after he or she has properly matured and have the capacity to prove their actions. Laws that allow judges to sentence juveniles to life imprisonment should be considered unconstitutional (Calvin, 2016).
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Just recently, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that juvenile offenders who have been convicted of murder should not be sentenced to life imprisonment. According to the United States Supreme Court, it is completely unconstitutional to sentence a minor to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for crimes that do not involve homicide. The Supreme Court emphasizes on the need to consider the fact that children are different from adults because they are more likely to be rehabilitated than their adult co-defendants. This makes in clear the significance of incorporating the rehabilitation factor into sentencing when handling juvenile offenders (Hannan, 2016). The new ruling made by the Supreme Court will require many juveniles across the United States to be re-sentences despite the severity of crimes that they might have committed. It is important to remember that the new ruling by the Supreme Court does not prevent juveniles from being sentenced to life imprisonment, but prohibits states from forcing children to spend the rest of their life in prison without a chance at parole. Although giving juvenile offenders a chance to defend themselves may save them from being detained in prison for life, those who are found guilty may still face life imprisonment which is completely unconstitutional (Hannan, 2016).
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According to Agyepong (2010), there are severe racial disparities in the manner in which juveniles who commit heinous crimes are sentenced to life imprisonment in the United States. Throughout the United States, more than 70 percent of juveniles who are serving life sentences without parole are Latino and Blacks. Out of all the states of the United States, California is considered as the state with the highest number of juvenile prisoners serving life imprisonment without parole. In Michigan, more than 25 percent of juvenile offenders come from minority groups. In the year 2009, 65 percent of juveniles serving life imprisonment without parole were of African-American origin (Agyepong, 2010). These figures show that race is one of the factors that are used in the United States to determine the types of juvenile offenders who are subjected to life imprisonment. The disproportionate rate of juvenile offenders that are sentenced to life imprisonment in the United States clearly shows existence of high levels of discrimination the juvenile correction system. It can therefore be concluded that sentencing juvenile offenders who commit heinous crimes to life imprisonment is not only unconstitutional but also unethical (Agyepong, 2010).
Sentencing juvenile offenders who commit heinous crimes to life imprisonment can be explained using Rights Ethics, the ethical principle of Benefice, and social learning theory. According to Rogers (1999), beneficence is an ethical principle that emphasizes that people’s actions are considered moral if they remove harm and improve the life situations of others. This means that an action is considered ethical if it maximizes benefits and minimizes harm to others. Similarly, the manner in which United States courts handle juvenile offenders who commit heinous crimes will be considered ethical if they help eliminate harm for children by helping them to improve their situations. On the contrary, sentencing juveniles of life imprisonment tends to increase harm to the children rather than maximizing benefits for them. This makes such actions unethical with reference to ethical principle of beneficence (Rogers, 1999).
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Rights ethics emphasizes on respect for humanity and it holds that a person’s actions are considered ethical if they allow people to exercise their rights freely without discrimination (Stopler, 2014). As Stopler (2014) explains, everyone has a moral responsibility to respect the legal rights of others. The specific legal rights as stipulated in the Bill of Rights and in the United States Constitution include the right to life, the right to free speech, the freedom of choice, the freedom of expression, the right to make decisions, and the right to fair treatment, among others. Sentencing juvenile offenders to life imprisonment without parole is a complete violation of the requirements of Rights ethics because it denies the children their freedom of expression, the right to fair treatment, and the right to life. The United States courts should compare the impact of sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment and how the lives of those children will be affected if they were allowed to serve in prison for a short period of time. It is important to give priority to actions that protect the rights of juvenile offenders and those that improve their situations (Stopler, 2014).
The ability of juvenile offenders to change and become good people in the society after committing heinous crimes can be explained using social learning theory. According to Miller (1990), social learning theory is largely focused on socialization concept. The process by which the society attempts to teach young children and youths to live according to its customs and beliefs is known as socialization (Miller, 1990). Social learning theory postulates that the type of behavior that a child develops depends on the nature of training received from parents. In this regard, parents play a very crucial role in assisting their children to develop positive behaviors. Therefore, allowing a child to stay close to his or her parents contributes greatly in positive behavior reinforcement while withdrawal of parental love can make a child suffer emotional, social, and mental problems. Sentencing juvenile offenders to life imprisonment denies them the parental love and attachment, a factor that can make them to develop mental and emotional problems when they become adults (Miller, 1990).
One point of controversy surrounding the issue of life imprisonment for juvenile offenders is the victim’s call for justice. Victims of heinous crimes committed by juveniles believe that the only way through which they can obtain justice is to have the criminals detained for the rest of their lives. David Balding, the brother to Janine Balding who was killed by juveniles in 1988 in Sydney says that the prison is where such criminals belong. He emphasizes that they do not deserve sympathy from anyone because they did not express sympathy when they were committing the murder. Bronson Blessington was sentenced to life imprisonment at the age of 14 in 1988 for the murder of Janine Balding in Sydney. Although Blessington looks completely rehabilitated, the court has denied him a chance to leave prison and the victim’s relatives insist that he should spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime committed during childhood. Sentencing juvenile offenders who commit heinous crimes to life imprisonment is both unethical and unconstitutional. Even though is a way of ensuring justice for victims, the court should consider the fact that a child’s brain in not fully developed and given a chance, they can change and become very good people in the society when their brains are fully developed.
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