Often our system of criminal justice creates solutions to terrible problems in which there are no winners. In many instances, such devil's bargains are the only currency. We find a prime example this week in the hallowed halls of the U. S. Supreme Court. While overshadowed by more sensational rulings, the court handed down a decision in a pair of linked cases, one with Arkansas ties.
Often our system of criminal justice creates solutions to terrible problems in which there are no winners. In many instances, such devil’s bargains are the only currency. We find a prime example this week in the hallowed halls of the U. S. Supreme Court. While overshadowed by more sensational rulings, the court handed down a decision in a pair of linked cases, one with Arkansas ties.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment precludes mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the majority opinion that mandatory life sentences prevent judges and juries from considering a juvenile’s “lessened culpability.”
In the opinion, Kagan staed, “By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate [the] principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.”
In facing the gruesome violence at issue, it is difficult to embrace the court’s ruling, but it is necessary; and in broader perspective the ruling serves an inviolate principle of American criminal justice.
The young men whose cases were at the center of this decision committed horrible, family-destroying crimes. In the Arkansas case, Kuntrell Jackson was convicted for his role in the 1999 shooting death of a video-store clerk. Jackson claims that he served as a lookout in the attempted robbery and did not expect to be an accomplice to homicide.
In the other case, Evan Miller was convicted in the 2003 killing of his neighbor, Cole Cannon. Alabama prosecutors said Miller and an accomplice robbed and beat Cannon before setting his trailer on fire, killing him in the process.
It is difficult to summon much sympathy for these young men, but sympathy is not what the Constitution demands. The Constitution demands even-handed punishment, not blind Hammurabic smiting. A mandatory life without parole sentence for juveniles — even these — represents an overly-rigidly monotonic line from which we cannot retreat.
Indeed, mandatory minimums for most crimes are now viewed by many in the criminal justice system as an ineffectual artifice that only serves to crowd prisons. They sound tough. They are popular with certain segments of the public. They have almost no deterrent value.
In America we often want for simple solutions to complex problems. In situations as nuanced and subjective as criminal prosecution can be, simple solutions tend to be ham-handed when broadly applied.
We see a metaphor for the complexity of criminal justice in the figure of Lady Justice (Justitia) that adorns courthouses all over the nations. Like America herself, Justitia is a cobbled amalgam of symbols from the Old World. The general figure of personified justice holds a balance in one hand — the scales of truth and fairness. This iconography dates to ancient Egypt and the Goddess Maat and later Isis.
In ancient Greece, the symbology is again taken up in the mother and daughter deities, Themis and Dike. Themis embodied divine order, law, and custom (as the personification of the divine rightness of law). More directly associated with Justitia is her daughter Dike, who was portrayed carrying scales.
The American iconography is not that simple. Justitia owes a nod to the blindfolded Fortuna (fate) of Roman lore as well as other Greek deities, Tyche (luck) and the sword-wielding Nemesis (vengeance). Justitia is often depicted in a blindfold. This is to represent impartiality. Some sculptors argue that her maiden form (and putative purity) renders a blindfold unnecessary.
Clearly, in America, we do not attribute such innocence to all youth, and with good reason. Even so, as justice dwells in the realm of ideals, we occasionally need decisions such as rendered by the court this week to remind us of that innocence lost.