It should be a rare case where a juvenile is sentenced to prison for a term to exceed 25 years. It is worthwhile to note that the age at which states classify or distinguish between juveniles and adults is out of kilter. Neuroscientists have mostly discovered that the cognitive abilities of our younger people are either taking longer to mature these days, or the original classifications were arbitrary and wrong. The mental capacity distinction between 17 and 18-year-old teens is marginal, and the notion that the slightly older teen should be regarded as being more responsible or mature has little basis in modern neuroscience analysis. The distinction and harsher treatment for the moderately young adult is a policy fashioned together by a culture that was scientifically challenged (at the time we didn’t even know there were neurons in the brain). We now know that the brains of young people are not progressing, cognitively speaking, as fast as we once thought. For most purposes the age of juveniles should be extended to 21, we think because science has proven that young people are not capable of making the right choices until then.
The error of keeping the juvenile age at 18, or even younger, in the legal system for purposes of imposing increased consequences, including the loss of liberty, is a major concern. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles was not permitted. The 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama, held that “The Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.” The decision made it clear that the mandatory penalty schemes failed to permit the sentencing judge from taking into account the myriad number of scientific studies applicable to juveniles and crime and whether “the law’s harshest term of imprisonment proportionately punishes a juvenile offender.”
We think it is incumbent on the states to bring juvenile justice into the 21st century and recognize the arbitrariness of old laws that classified juveniles by their cognitive levels at a time when little was known about the brain. Increasing the age to 21 is a good start. We also believe that no juvenile should be subject to a sentence longer than 25 years.