The Court Balances Mercy & Justice

The Supreme Court today issued two rulings that might seem, at first blush, contradictory. In the first, the Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to sentence a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole except in cases of homicide. In the second, the Court held that the federal government can refuse to release a sex offender, even though his or her sentence is completed, if there is a likelihood that the offender remains a threat to society. The latter outcome seems to be more punitive and the former less so.

I am no constitutional scholar, and so I will pass on any analysis of the legal arguments. But, insofar as law must embody justice, we can all conclude that the Court got it right. It is cruel to conclude that a juvenile is beyond redemption. It is not so unusual: I can hear my mother counseling me to stay away from a certain classmate: “He is a bad egg, and he will never change. I knew his father!” But people do change, and none more than youth. The Court put the possibility of mercy and redemption above the demands of simple, adult justice. That is the right call.

The second ruling is just as sound. Under our system of laws, it is undoubtedly the case that the punishment must fit the crime and that, once a punishment has been fulfilled, a convict should be released. But, if we have learned anything in the past decade, it is that sexual predators, for a variety of complex psychological reasons, are almost never “cured” of their criminal inclinations, in part because predators rarely see their inclinations as criminal. They suffer from a kind of aborted psycho-sexual development that leads them to live in complete denial. In their minds, when their minds turn to sex, they are always 12 or 13 so they can’t see what they are doing as the wrong that it is. The law should be altered to allow for a state’s interest in protecting its children from these people who are so incapable of helping themselves. This is no denial of mercy. It is no favor to a pedophile to let him commit more crimes.

I was also heartened to see that Obama’s only nominee on the Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, was in the majority in both cases.

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