Retribution or rehabilitation?

supremecourtThe Supreme Court on Monday began hearing arguments on two cases involving life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders. In Graham v. Florida, Terrance Graham pled guilty to burglary and assault or battery. He was sentenced to probation, but then at the age of 17, he was arrested for home-invasion robbery and eluding police. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for violating probation.

The upcoming decision has implications for social psychology because of presumptions about the impact of prison on rehabilitation, as well as the potential distinction between young (highly transformable) and older minds.  

While the Court seems to be leaning toward allowing for a legal distinction between adults and juveniles in sentencing guidelines, Justice Scalia expressed early dissent, suggesting that sentencing is not only for deterrence: “One of the purposes is retribution, punishment for just perfectly horrible actions.”

But the judge who sentenced Mr. Graham did not seem to have retribution in mind when he told the boy, “I don’t understand why you would be given such a great opportunity to do something with your life and why you would throw it away … if I can’t do anything to get you back on the right path, then I have to start focusing on the community and trying to protect the community from your actions.”

The New York Times published an editorial expressing disapproval of such strict sentences for children. While Roberts and Gebotys (2006) found that “the public is more concerned with the principle of just deserts than with the utilitarian sentencing aims,” there is little support for sentencing a child for life. In fact, Scott, Reppucci, Antonishak and DeGennaro (2006) found that adults in their study believe there is a significant and consequential difference between juveniles and adults, and that sentences should reflect that difference.

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