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U.S. Supreme Court: More leniency for juvenile offenders

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court recognize that juvenile offenders should not be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole except in the "rare" instances where a "crime reflects irreparable corruption."

But as of this summer, more than 2,300 inmates around the country are serving lifetime sentences for crimes they committed as minors. More than 7,000 additional individuals are serving "virtual" life sentences, wherein their mandated prison terms extend beyond the typical human life span.

According to The Atlantic, a disproportionate number of these inmates are in Georgia. And last year, the U.S. Supreme Court argued that the majority of such prisoners should have a chance at parole. This has raised difficult questions for our state's legal authorities regarding which cases ought to be revisited, which sentences ought to be revised, and what "irreparable corruption" really means. 

What's happening in Georgia

A recent article in U.S. News & World Report indicates that, in Georgia, only a single case has been revisited and resentenced since the U.S. Supreme Court's decree. And the outcome isn't exactly promising for juvenile offenders.

A former gang member, who was given life without parole at 17 for charges including rape and murder, received a marginally lighter sentence: two life terms, and eligibility for parole at age 77.

The defendant has already asked the Georgia Supreme Court to review his case. His lawyer, who directs the Appeal for Youth Clinic at Emory Law School, has stated that the new sentence is still unnecessarily harsh, and violates the U.S. Supreme Court's new guidance.

Changes to the system

In part, the U.S. Supreme Court based its rulings on research demonstrating that teens' brains are not fully developed. This makes them more likely to act violently. To suggest that such individuals are "irreparably" corrupt is, with this in mind, irresponsibly presumptuous. As individuals mature, so do their grasps on concepts like morality, humanity, and consequence. And our justice system should reflect that.      

Likewise, even if the state does not immediately change the sentences of imprisoned individuals, there does seem to be hope for juvenile offenders. The system is beginning to revise its understanding of what "justice" means for youth offenders. As such, a number of experts have said they expect punishments for all sorts of juvenile criminal activity - not just the most heinous crimes - to become a bit more lenient. 

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