Tuesday, October 25, 2005

An editorial in the Globe and Mail yesterday had an interesting comment on young offenders in the US.

"Locking juvenile criminals away for life without hope of parole has no
place in the civilized world. But in the United States, at least 2,225 people
who committed their crimes before they turned 18 are being held for "life
without." Only a handful of cases exist in the rest of the world."

.....

The logic of ending the juvenile death penalty applies to "life without." When the Supreme Court banned the death penalty for teen killers earlier this year, it said teens have less culpability than adults. They are not mature in their judgment.

.....

The life-without-parole sentence for teens is a throwback to the United
States of 200 years ago. Late last century, the conviction grew that teenagers,
though accountable for their actions, deserved special treatment. But that
conviction weakened when the youth murder rate rose. Between 1977 and 1986,
there were on average fewer than 965 gun homicides a year by those 14 to 17. By
1994, there were 3,337. Life without parole became popular soon after, and even
though the youth murder rate has dropped back to its 1976 levels, the percentage
of life-without-parole penalties stays high.

.....

A justice system incapable of mercy to young people has lost its soul. The
U.S. needs to join the civilized world in its treatment of teenage
criminals.


Is throwing youth in prison for life unjust and cruel? I suppose that depends on your worldview. In a non-Christian system of morality, I fail to see how calling this unjust and cruel is any more than a tautology. The only argument against such a thing is that youth are apparently "less mature." Of course, any one who has observed youth know that there is no magic transformation when a youth turns "18." In fact, many kids know well between right and wrong when it comes to homicide. They do not realize the full consequences of their actions, true. But I would argue that there is rarely a person who fully does. People still commit crimes and violations of morality over 18, and don't know what they are doing. People cheat on their spouse, breaking up their family. Is this some lack of maturity? Surely, judgment is unequal.

Harold Berman's Law and Revolution explains why we deal with youth in a much more kind manner than we do adults. And surprise, surprise, it has to do with Christian ideas of the human. The early 12th century canonists and legal theorists believed that children were more innocent than adults for a number of reasons.

For one, they were bound in a family. They were bound to obey the father. Adults were responsible for their children, just as Christ the Church.

Second, children have limited knowledge of good and evil. They have natural knowledge. But they have not reached an "age of accountability" where they are responsible for their own souls, their salvation. Before that point, their souls are in the Lord's hands. This is the strongest correlation with modern laws that limit the culpability of younger people. It had to do with their relation with God.

I suppose we have lost that correlation. Does that mean that whole area of the legal sphere is in jeopardy?