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Experts in Psychology, Law Discuss Juvenile Sentencing

On Wednesday at Harvad Law School, experts in forensic psychology, law, and juvenile justice policy discussed the Supreme Court’s decision to retroactively apply a recent ruling to ban mandatory life without possibility of parole for some 2,000 incarcerated juvenile homicides.

The event, which drew a large audience, was held as a part of the Project on Law and Applied Neuroscience, a collaboration between Massachusetts General Hospital and the Law School.

In 2012, the Supreme Court banned mandatory life without possibility of parole for juvenile homicides in court case Miller v. Alabama. This year, it retroactively applied this decision to approximately 2,000 incarcerated individuals in Montgomery v. Louisiana, leading to their resentencing and potential parole.

“When the Supreme Court eliminated mandatory life without parole for juvenile homicides, it was unquestionably an earth shattering decision,” Judge Nancy Gertner, the moderator of the discussion and a lecturer at the Law School, said. “Given the plasticity of the juvenile brain, they ought to be sentenced to something that enables a right to hope.”

Panelist Robert T. Kinscherff, senior fellow in law and neuroscience at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at the Law School, said that high rates of juvenile homicides in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to the rise of a perception by the public of the teenage “super-predator,” which influenced opinions around juvenile sentencing.

“The fear of the future was that these teen super-predators were remorseless, heartless, highly violent, and were going to somehow attack us at our castle walls and bring us all down,” Kinscherff said. “It was heard in the legislature, and elsewhere, that if you’re old enough to do the crime, you’re old enough to do the time.”

Another speaker, Vincent Schiraldi, who is a senior research fellow directing the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the Harvard Kennedy School, said social changes have also influenced crime rates, pointing out that education, in particular, offers insights into likelihood of going to prison.

“Advanced degrees are vital to desisting from criminal behavior,” Schiraldi said. “Sixty-eight percent of black males go to prison at some point in their lives if they don’t graduate high school. If they graduate high school, it’s 21.4 percent. If they go to college, it’s down to 6.6 percent, which is still a very high number.”

Schiraldi also argued that the delay of stabilizing life events, such as marriage and employment, has prolonged an individual's state of youth, leading to an increase in criminal behaviors.

“Crossing certain key developmental bridges are associated with maturing out of criminal behaviors,” Schiraldi said. “Stable marriage and steady employment are coming later and later for today’s young people.”

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