Academic journal article Notre Dame Law Review

Incorrigible Students: A Criminal Oxymoron?

Academic journal article Notre Dame Law Review

Incorrigible Students: A Criminal Oxymoron?

Article excerpt


Compulsory education laws and juvenile life sentences without the possibility of parole are fundamentally incompatible. Behind each state's compulsory education law, which often demands school attendance until the age of seventeen or eighteen, is an assumption that all children live in a state of dependency upon educators for their cognitive and social development, until they reach adulthood. Behind states' authorization of juvenile-life-without-parole sentences, in contrast, is an assumption that children under the age of eighteen are susceptible to "irreparable corruption" and "incorrigibility," such that no rehabilitative measure, educational program, or support system could possibly restore their potential to reenter society as free, productive members of a democracy. If youth education is compulsory, even for youths in prison, and a primary purpose of education is to prepare youths to be successful, active members of their communities, compulsory education laws and juvenile-life-without-parole sentences cannot rationally coexist. This Note suggests that youth advocates might be wise to capitalize on the conflict between education law and criminal law as they urge state legislatures to eliminate juvenile-life-without-parole sentences from state criminal codes.

The Note proceeds in two Parts. The remainder of the Introduction presents a closed door: the Supreme Court's hesitancy, to date, to find juvenile-life-without-parole sentences unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. After exploring the contours of the closed Door, the Introduction turns to an open window: education law. This, I argue, may be wielded to attack the lawfulness of juvenile-life-without-parole sentences on wholly non-constitutional grounds. The Introduction concludes with remarks regarding this Note's relevance and timeliness. Part I tracks the Note's central argument, premise by premise, that state compulsory education laws and juvenile-life-without-parole sentences are wholly incompatible. Part II anticipates objections to the argument, responds, and attempts to fill any lingering logical gaps. I then conclude by suggesting contexts beyond the scope of this Note in which the relationship between compulsory education laws and prisoners' rights might prove useful.

A. The Door

As of late 2017, it is not unconstitutional to impose a life sentence without the possibility of parole on a juvenile criminal defendant. (1) Although the Constitution requires states to reserve this sentence as punishment for youths whose crimes reflect "irreparable corruption" (2)--categorically excluding all nonhomicide defendants (3)--judges and juries in most states still have authority to impose life-without-parole sentences on juvenile homicide defendants at their discretion. (4)

The Court's recent discussions of juvenile-life-without-parole ("JLWOP") sentences has revealed, or at least reiterated, rich judicial commentary on juvenile culpability, maturity, and development. Justice Kennedy's admonishment of mandatory JLWOP sentences in Miller v. Alabama, for example, turned on the "distinctive attributes of youth...[:] immaturity, recklessness, and impetuosity," among others. (5) Miller highlighted the plurality's intuitive notion that "incorrigibility is inconsistent with youth." (6) While this sentiment alone could serve as grounds for holding that JLWOP sentences are entirely unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment, not just for nonhomicide defendants, the broader issue of JLWOP's constitutionality has not yet been squarely presented to the Court. At the very least, it is evident that the Court finds in juvenile defendants "greater prospects for reform" than in their adult counterparts. (7)

The body of juvenile punishment cases arising under the Eighth Amendment, which "turn[ ] on the characteristics of the offender," has produced a set of "categorical rules... for defendants who committed their crimes before the age of 18. …

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