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Jay Evensen: Are certain criminals 'irretrievably depraved'?

Published: Thursday, June 28 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

The U.S. Supreme Court decided this week to outlaw mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of murder.

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"Irretrievable depravity."

Those two words popped up in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision this week outlawing mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of murder.

Is a 14-year-old boy who goes along with his friends to rob a video store and ends up watching as one of them shoots and kills the clerk irretrievably depraved?

How about a different 14-year-old boy who, together with a friend, beats up a neighbor and sets fire to his trailer, leaving him to die of smoke inhalation?

Oh, did I mention this neighbor had been supplying drugs to the young man's mother and that he had been giving the boy and his friend booze and marijuana on the day of the murder?

And does it matter to you that the boy's mother had abused him so badly through the years that, according to an NPR report, he had tried to kill himself several times since he was 5 years old? Or how about the fact that his friend, who was 16, made a deal with prosecutors in exchange for his testimony, and that he is serving a sentence that allows him to be paroled some day. The 14-year-old was charged as an adult with murder in the course of an arson, which in Alabama carries a mandatory, no-room-for-debate sentence of life in prison without parole.

This has been a week for momentous Supreme Court decisions. With health care and immigration leading the parade, few people noticed the entry on mandatory sentences for juveniles. It was no less important, however, in defining who we are as a nation.

A divided court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. It did not, however, do anything to prevent a judge from issuing such a life sentence if he or she felt it appropriate, which is what judges are supposed to do, within guidelines set by the state.

I don't know whether harsh minimum mandatory sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. They certainly are now, as a matter of fact. The dissenting justices, however, made some strong arguments about the original intent of the Founders when they added the 8th Amendment to the Bill of Rights, making it illegal to inflict "cruel and unusual punishments."

Justice Samuel Alito made a point of trying to distinguish the acts of someone who is 17 ½ from someone who is 6 months older and subject to adult laws. "Seventeen-year-olds commit a significant number of murders every year… . Many of these murderers are at least as mature as the average 18-year-old," he wrote.

Good point, which is why my concerns aren't so much for whether such laws are constitutional for juveniles or adults. I would simply persuade all state and federal lawmakers to do away with them for all.

That puts me in line with the American Bar Association, the Judicial Conference of the United States and just about every major organization focusing on criminal justice.

I couldn't read the Supreme Court decision without thinking about the families I've met through the years whose children made horrible judgments. One of these children of a Utah family ended up being pardoned by President Clinton after serving several years in federal prison on drug charges. Had he been charged in a state court, the sentence likely would have been much less.

I also thought about Weldon Angelos, who sold drugs to a government informant and, because of circumstances, was given a mandatory sentence of 55 years. A U.S. district judge in Utah called it "unjust, cruel and even irrational," but he had no choice.

Is someone who commits a certain crime "irretrievably depraved"? I don't know. I doubt a group of state lawmakers from any of the 50 states knows, either. They won't be considering any of the facts I asked you to consider. They simply decide whether to pass a law that casts a blanket sentence over any crime of a particular sort, and they often want to prove to voters how tough they are on crime.

A judge, however, can consider all the questions, and ought to be allowed to do so.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.

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