Courts should draw line on age restrictions

Winston Churchill once famously called democracy “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

The predicament of age restrictions within the judicial system present similar difficulties.

Nearly all USC students have to deal with age restrictions. You have to be 18 to vote. Twenty-one to drink. Twenty-five to rent a car. Sixty-two to receive social security benefits — and so on.

These rules are all confusing and often frustrating. Who is to say that a 20-year-old is not responsible enough to drink, but a 21-year-old is? Nothing magical happens to people when their age changes, but the laws governing their behavior do. Is there anything that can be done about this dilemma?

This question is particularly relevant now because of two cases currently under consideration in the US Supreme Court. Lawyers for prisoners Joe Sullivan and Terrance Graham are arguing that their clients were too young at the time of their crimes to warrant the life sentences they are currently serving.

Sullivan was given life without parole for raping a 72-year-old woman when he was 13. Graham was given life for armed burglary at 16 followed by a probation violation at 17. Each lawyer is arguing that the logic behind restricting capital punishment to offenders 18 and older should be applied to their clients, which the court did in 2005 in Roper v. Simmons, and to only people who committed murder, which the court did last year in Kennedy v. Louisiana.

Exactly how the cases will be resolved is unclear, but the court seems to be leaning toward considering the age of young offenders when a life sentence is a possibility. However, the justices are still in disagreement about whether drawing a specific line makes sense, or if the current case-by-case system should remain in place.

The justices need to draw a line.

The problem with a line is that it is inevitably arbitrary — there is not one age at which point life sentences begin to seem reasonable (though if there were, it would definitely be older than 13). A case-by-case system is able to surmount this subjectivity by allowing all of the details of a case to dictate whether a juvenile receives a life sentence.

Such a system, however, is open to abuse or judicial mistakes, which our justice system is predicated on guarding against. In fact, one could argue that the foundational principle of our courts is to avoid punishing individuals who do not deserve it.

There are currently nine people serving life in prison without parole for crimes that they committed as 13-year-olds, and two of them did not commit murder. These people had their entire lives taken from them because of something they did at an age when nobody can be expected to answer for their actions to such an extent. We need a specific rule to guard against this.

The reality is that years of experience with all sorts of questions, from who should be allowed to drive to who should be allowed to be executed, has shown that age limits are the least of bad options because they prevent extreme or chaotic circumstances. This is especially true in questions of protecting people from the law, a core American tenet.

Setting the age is hard. Truthfully, I have no idea what the age should be, though 18 seems to make the most sense as that is the age that the government has apparently decided that people are mature enough to be sentenced to death, vote, serve in the military and so on.

Whatever age is chosen is bound to be arbitrary. Choosing one would be the worst option — besides for all the other ones that have been tried from time to time.

Daniel Charnoff is a junior majoring international relations (global business).

1 reply
  1. Keanna
    Keanna says:

    I was understanding your point until the part “These people had their entire lives taken from them because of something they did at an age when nobody can be expected to answer for their actions to such an extent.”

    What?? They are 13, not 3! At age 13, you should know right from wrong! (If they don’t well, that’s a totally different problem) 13 year olds are in 7th, 8th, or 9th grade. They know better, and need to take responsibility for their actions. They are growing up, they are teenagers, and they should held accountable for all that they do. Yes, parents are more involved in taking some responsibility also, but it is still mostly on the 13 year old. A 13 year old is no less responsible for a crime than a 23 year old is. You do the crime, you do the time. That’s my philosophy. I agree that you said that the “age line will be arbitrary”, but being a teenager doesn’t give anyone a free pass from the consequences. Not at all.

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