Tuesday, September 28, 2010
In Graham v. Florida, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits a sentence of life without possibility of parole for a non-homicide crime committed when the offender was under the age of eighteen. In an earlier Article, The False Promise of Adolescent Brain Science in Juvenile Justice, this author noted the pendency of Graham and its companion case, in which petitioners and their amici offered neuroscientific arguments closely paralleling those made by the defendant in Roper v. Simmons. Kennedy’s opinion in Graham clarified what his opinion in Roper had left ambiguous: the Court believes neuroscience relevant to general propositions as to the normal developmental course of adolescence. As the cases’ potential impact was set to one side in False Promise, the Essay both supplements that Article and reflects on its conclusions.
I predict that Graham’s most dramatic effects will have little to do with developmental neuroscience. Its most significant downstream effects likely will manifest in evaluation of term-of-years sentencing and opportunities for parole. As to adolescent brain science, I argue that the Graham Court gave it the maximum weight it presently can bear. The decision therefore provides welcome support for legal policy-makers – whether in courts or legislatures – who seek to draw modestly on such science in reinforcing commitments to the special legal status of youth. But the predictable post-Graham temptation to place even greater weight on developmental neuroscience should – for the many reasons articulated in False Promise, which remain unaltered – be resisted.