Judicial discretion

Among the number of decisions the U.S. Supreme Court handed down last week, one that also stands out is a ruling that returns to judges the discretion to decide sentences in cases where the defendant is a juvenile.

We basically think that laws that establish mandatory sentences for certain crimes tie up the hands of the judges. They prevent judges from evaluating the circumstances surrounding each case, since the punishment is decided in advance-and by law-instead of leaving it up to the presiding judge, who knows the case in detail. The situation is even worse when the one being charged is a juvenile.

However, fighting crime has always been a politically popular cause, which has led to the legislative interference of taking authority away from the judge. The end is to guarantee exemplary punishments, which are often an injustice because they do not fit the characteristics of the case.

For example, federal law and the laws of 26 U.S. states call for life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of homicide. Fortunately, these laws were overturned last Monday by the slim margin of 5-4 that usually divides the high court.

Is it necessary for a 15 year old convicted of homicide to be automatically sentenced to life in prison without parole?

No, it is not. But the court’s ruling does not prevent the judge from issuing this sentence if he or she considers it appropriate for the crime committed. What is important is for judges to have the discretion to issue a life sentence or a lower sentence that considers the extenuating circumstances of the case.

This ruling is consistent with other similar Supreme Court decisions, like the one that excluded juveniles from the death penalty and the one that forbid sentences of life without parole for juveniles found guilty of crimes that do not involve killing.

Critics of the decision claim it will let murderers back out on the street to kill again. This is an exaggeration from those who do not trust judges and think that lawmakers from their positions have more knowledge to issue a sentence in a case than the judge who presided over the trial.

The decision is a triumph of justice, overturning one more piece of political interference from legislatures in areas that have nothing to do with them, such as establishing mandatory sentencing.