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May. 17 2010 - 11:16 am | 326 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

The Supreme Court’s schizophrenic take on juveniles and justice

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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?


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  1. collapse expand

    Excellent article.

    I foresee the extremists arguing that if you don’t support indefinite imprisonment for sexual offenders (or anyone for that matter) you somehow support sexual offenders…

    I think maybe harsher sentences for sex offenders could be in order, but this just seems like they’re targeting people who have already been given their sentences more than anything.

    I don’t care what the crime is, we have rights, and if you serve your sentence, you should be set free. A monitored freedom would at least be Constitutional.

    Maybe things like ankle-bracelets to those who have already been sentenced and ready for release could be used, but taking a mans FREEDOM because sex crimes are more taboo is really an infringement on the Constitution.

    Somewhere, not as far back as we’d believe, “Conservative” ideology has managed to meld the Constitution with Christianity.

    It’s like the activist “conservative” Supreme Court uses the Bible as their guide for most decisions and social issues, then they jump to the Constitution when the Bible doesn’t portray their narrative.

    I wonder what their definition for “sexually dangerous” actually is?

    I just don’t see why they don’t enact longer sentences…this seems like a direct contradiction to what the Constitution allows….

    The teabaggers feared communism from “liberals,” but it looks like the extreme-right and their pursuit to empower the state is what Americans should be fearing the most.

    I just wonder where the indefinite detention stops? What’s the next crime that will be subject to these terms and an equally vague definition of the offense?

  2. collapse expand

    Maximum sentence for any crime but intentional murder should be a year of water boarding. The punishment is severe enough, it would close down prisons and save billions. Long term incarceration is an unnecessary expense for honest hardworking taxpayers. They are the ones that should be shown mercy.

  3. collapse expand

    I thought only gays and illegal aliens had rights……are you saying other americans have rights, too?

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