The Supreme Court’s schizophrenic take on juveniles and justice
The Supreme Court was in kid-friendly form today, ruling on child molesters, child abduction and whether juveniles can be sentenced to life in prison for crimes other than murder. It found that federal authorities have the right to hold those considered “sexually dangerous” even after such people have finished their prison sentences – even indefinitely.
And in finding that juveniles cannot be locked up for life with the keys thrown away for non-murder crimes, based on the case of a Florida teen sentenced to life without parole for armed robbery, Anthony Kennedy wrote: “The state has denied him any chance to later demonstrate that he is fit to rejoin society based solely on a nonhomicide crime that he committed while he was a child in the eyes of the law.”
You’d think, based on these findings, as well as a decision last term finding that school officials acted illegally when they strip-searched an Arizona honors student who was rumored to be in possession of ibuprofen (gasp!), that the Supreme Court takes very seriously its obligation to our society’s younger members – those who are expected to follow the law, though they’re not old enough to take part in electing the leaders who help shape them. In reality, though, the current Supreme Court is almost schizophrenic in its treatment of children and young adults – ruling to protect them from cruelty in extreme situations like today’s sentencing ruling and the strip-search case, but denying them free-speech protections in others.
In 2007, the court made an infuriating and precedent-busting decision against an Alaska student who held up a banner with the sorta provocative, but ultimately harmless message “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” on a public street near his high school during a gathering for the Olympic torch relay. He was suspended – a decision the court upheld. In his dissent, which was joined by David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens wrote that the school was way out of bounds for punishing a student for “ambiguous statement to a television audience simply because it contained an oblique reference to drugs. The First Amendment demands more, indeed, much more.”
That decision flies in the face of Tinker v. Des Moines, a court ruling from 1969 finding that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” It involved students wearing black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War – and their questionable speech took place on school grounds, whereas the student in the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” didn’t even take his message directly to the school.
The real test of whether the Supreme Court believes the fundamental message relayed in Tinker could come later this year, when it rules on a California law outlawing the sale of violent video games to minors. Given that it recently has ruled that children need protection from predators but don’t have the same free speech rights as adults, I can only guess which way this one will go.
It’s encouraging that the court found that juveniles deserve a second chance at life if they haven’t committed murder; but ultimately, what good are all of those protections if your other constitutional rights are reined in until you turn 18?