Restoring Rehabilitation to the American Juvenile Justice System Commentary
Restoring Rehabilitation to the American Juvenile Justice System
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JURIST Guest Columnist Perry Moriearty of the University of Minnesota Law School says that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs marks an important step toward restoring principles of rehabilitation to the juvenile justice system…

Quantel Lotts was fourteen years old and not yet five feet tall when he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Like most children who are involved in a serious crime at a young age, Quantel’s childhood [PDF] was bleak. Quantel spent the early years of his life in a blighted St. Louis neighborhood with his mother, who used and sold crack cocaine. When he was removed from her home and placed in foster care at age eight, child welfare workers observed that he “smelled of urine and had badly decayed molars as well as numerous scars on his arms, legs and forehead.” Quantel lived in three different foster homes before he was eventually reunited with his father and younger brother. When Quantel was about ten, his father, Charlie Lotts, moved the boys to rural St. Francois County, Missouri and into the home of Tammy Summers and her two sons. Charlie and Tammy later married.

By all accounts, Quantel developed a close relationship with his new step-siblings, including Michael, who was three years older. On November 13, 1999, however, Quantel and Michael got into an argument. Michael hit Quantel with a blow dart, Quantel responded with a toy bow and arrow and a fight ensued. Michael was stabbed and later died. Quantel was charged with first-degree murder, tried and convicted as an adult. His sentence was mandatory: under Missouri law anyone convicted of first-degree murder must be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. Over the objections of his stepmother and Michael’s biological mother, Tammy, fourteen-year-old Quantel was sentenced to die in prison.

On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court decided the companion cases of Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, holding that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles like Quantel violate the Eighth Amendment of the US Constitution. The joint ruling in Miller and Jackson thus became the third Supreme Court decision in seven years to conclude that three fundamental features of youth — lack of maturity, vulnerability to negative influences and capacity for change — make children “constitutionally different” from adults and “less deserving of the most severe punishments.” Though the Court declined to ban juvenile life-without-parole (JLWOP) sentences outright, the decision restores hope to Quantel and more than 2000 others who believed they were destined to die on prison. Following in the footsteps of Roper v. Simmons, which abolished the death penalty for juveniles in 2005, and Graham v. Florida, which banned JLWOP for non-homicide cases in 2010, it is an important step toward restoring principles of rehabilitationism to a system that, over the last 20 years, has come almost entirely unmoored from its ideological foundations.

The immediate impact of Miller/Jackson is the invalidation of more than 2,000 JLWOP sentences across 29 states. Quantel’s is one of them. While it is technically possible for judges to resentence petitioners to life-without-parole after a consideration of their “youth and its attendant characteristics,” Justice Elena Kagan’s majority opinion makes clear that all JLWOP sentences are now suspect. “[G]iven all that we have said in Roper, Graham and this decision about children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon,” she concludes. For more than 2,000 people who were told as children that they would spend the rest of their lives behind bars, the significance of the Court’s postulation cannot be overstated.

Miller/Jackson is also part of a broader effort, which began with Roper in 2005, to erect a constitutional barrier against two decades of legislative efforts to do away with the US justice system’s historical distinction between children and adults. Founded at the turn of the twentieth century on the progressive philosophy that child offenders should be treated rather than punished, the US juvenile justice system was created as a rehabilitative alternative to the adult justice system. Though the adoption of several key constitutional protections during the 1960s and 1970s formalized juvenile court proceedings, the system retained its rehabilitative orientation well into the 1980s. During the early 1990s, however, as violent crime rates among juveniles rose sharply, much of the country became consumed [PDF] by what it feared was an oncoming onslaught of adolescent “superpredators” — violent, “morally impoverished” youth with “absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future.” Politicians reacted swiftly. Between 1992 and 1997 alone, nearly every legislature in the country enacted laws [PDF] which allowed child lawbreakers to be tried and punished as adults in what one criminologist has called the “most sustained legislative crackdown ever on serious offenses committed by youth within the jurisdictional ages of American Juvenile Courts.”

As we now know, these fears were unfounded. Juvenile crime rates [PDF] began to drop precipitously in the mid-1990s and remain as low today as they have been in nearly thirty years. Even some of the era’s most vocal spokespersons have expressed regret over their rhetoric, and John DiIulio, the former Princeton professor credited with coining the term “suprepredator,” has gone so far as to denounce his earlier predictions by signing onto an amicus brief [PDF] in the Miller/Jackson case. Nonetheless, the US juvenile justice system was radically altered during the so-called “get tough” era. In the span of just a decade, the mitigating factors of age and immaturity and the goal of rehabilitation were subordinated to concerns about public safety and the goals of retribution and incapacitation. The results were stark. Between 1990 and 2006, the incarceration of youth in adult jails increased [PDF] 208 percent. Like Quantel, the majority [PDF] of these youth were children of color.

Miller/Jackson repudiates policies and practices that have dominated the juvenile justice system for the last two decades. Indeed, many of the mandatory sentencing schemes invalidated by Miller/Jackson can be traced to this era. The decision is also a rebuke of Justice Antonin Scalia’s claim during oral arguments that the mandatory sentencing of juveniles is somehow less problematic because “modern penology has abandoned that rehabilitation thing.” Like Roper and Graham before it, which emphasize that a child’s unique “capacity for change” compels a “meaningful opportunity for release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation,”Miller/Jackson is laden with strains of rehabilitationism. “A child’s character is not as ‘well-formed’ as an adult’s,” Kagan writes, “his traits are ‘less fixed’ and his actions less likely to be ‘evidence of irretrievabl[e] depravity.'” The “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform” of children necessarily mean that they “are less deserving of the most severe punishments,'” she concludes. In other words, who the child offender is and what he might become should be at least as important as what he did.

Scalia is right that rehabilitation as a rationale for criminal punishment fell out of favor among both lawmakers and theorists in the 1980’s. As liberal critiques of its unpredictable and sometimes discriminatory nature and conservative claims about the excessive leniency of indeterminate sentencing became more prevalent, determinate schemes and calls for “just deserts” ascended. But even if it is true that rehabilitation is passé in the adult realm — a proposition which at least some “modern penologists” would dispute — rehabilitation has always meant something very different for juveniles. By virtue of their “developmental immaturity” in the areas of independent functioning, decision-making, emotion regulation and general cognitive processing, juveniles are, in many respects, in an ever-present state of rehabilitation and reform as they mature into adults. Study after study bears this out. Research also demonstrates that strong programs can and often do rehabilitate even the most serious adolescent offenders.

Take Quantel. During the early years of his incarceration, Quantel admits that he was depressed and suicidal. But then things began to change. “The older I got I didn’t get as mad anymore, it’s like I grew out of it,” he says. He believes that he is an entirely different person today than he was in 1999. And now, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller/Jackson, this will matter.

Perry Moriearty is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School, where she teaches criminal law, race and the law and co-directs the Childhood Advocacy and Juvenile Justice Clinic. She writes in the areas of constitutional law, juvenile justice, criminal law and race and the law.

Suggested citation: Perry Moriearty, Restoring Rehabilitation to the American Juvenile Justice System, JURIST – Forum, Sept. 24, 2012,

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