On Monday morning, amidst freezing temperatures and mountains of snow, the Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion to a nearly empty courtroom: By a vote of 6–3, the court ruled that any prisoner who was automatically sentenced to life without parole before the age of 18 now had a constitutional right to request his release. The decision immediately gave nearly 2,000 people reason to hope they will not die behind bars—and, as Justice Antonin Scalia argued in dissent, made the further imposition of juvenile life without parole a “practical impossibility.”
Later that same day, President Barack Obama gave criminal justice reform advocates a second reason to cheer: The president issued executive actions sharply limiting the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons. In addition to reducing the maximum amount of time prisoners can spend in solitary, and limiting the number of prisoners who are eligible for it in the first place, Obama issued a ban on solitary for juveniles. His reforms will apply to roughly 10,000 inmates.
Proponents of juvenile justice reform have spent decades fighting for both of these victories. Their arrival on the same day sent waves of optimism through a community that, until very recently, rarely had reason to be optimistic. Even the compassionate tone of both Obama’s announcement and the Supreme Court’s ruling was remarkable. In a Washington Post op-ed announcing his executive actions, Obama told the story of Kalief Browder, who was arrested at age 16 for stealing a backpack, imprisoned for three years without trial, and forced to spend two of those years in solitary confinement. In 2015, after his release from prison, he killed himself; friends and family say his experience in solitary drove him to suicide.
“Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences,” Obama noted. “It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior. Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones. Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses.”
Obama’s comments echo those of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who penned a concurrence last June suggesting that extended solitary confinement may violate the Eighth Amendment’s bar against cruel and unusual punishment. (Kennedy, too, mentioned Browder’s suicide.) It was no surprise that Kennedy also authored Monday’s opinion granting an opportunity for release to 2,000 prisoners sentenced to life without parole as juveniles. That opportunity, Kennedy explained, was a constitutionally necessity, because “children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change”:
Allowing those offenders to be considered for parole ensures that juveniles whose crimes reflected only transient immaturity—and who have since matured—will not be forced to serve a disproportionate sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
And, to the shock of pretty much everybody, Chief Justice John Roberts—who dissented from an earlier decision limiting life without parole for minors—joined Kennedy’s opinion. Has Roberts finally acceded to the court’s insistence that minors be treated differently? Was there just something in the air on Monday? Either way, his vote contributed to a growing consensus among liberals and conservatives—now reflected in every branch of government—that America can, and must, treat its juvenile offenders with the decency they deserve.