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2014 Mirror of Justice Lecture Decries Justice System’s Treatment of Children

 

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It has been less than five years since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its groundbreaking ruling in Graham v. Florida that life-without-parole sentences could no longer be imposed on juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses. Children’s advocates say the Court’s statement was long overdue, but that the root problem lingers—a justice system that often refuses to recognize the difference between children and adults.   
 
Invited to give the law school’s 2014 Mirror of Justice lecture on Nov. 13, faculty member, Professor Cara Drinan, discussed the issue at length in remarks titled “Children are Different: A Constitutional and Moral Call to Action.”
 
Drinan, whose scholarship focuses on criminal justice reform with a particular emphasis on access to justice, juvenile justice and the death penalty, began by describing the vast American system of incarceration.  
 
Today the United States incarcerates more than two million individuals, roughly quadruple the American prison population from the 1970s. The U.S. represents only five percent of the world’s population, but houses twenty-five percent of its prisoners. 
 
“We are the world’s largest jailer,” Drinan stated. Worse, the nation “is an international outlier in its harsh treatment of juveniles.” 
 
Minors who have been convicted of crimes are often housed in adult facilities, where they are subject to physical and sexual abuse, among other violent realities of incarceration. Often, they leave prison unreformed and firmly set on a lifelong path of recidivism.  
 
Two recent Supreme Court decisions have brightened the picture a bit, Drinan acknowledged: the aforementioned Graham v. Florida and a 2012 decision, Miller v. Alabama, in which the Court found unconstitutional mandatory life-without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of homicide.  
 
“These cases were a call to action, a clear indictment of many widespread juvenile justice practices,” Drinan said. 
The Supreme Court has not clarified whether Miller applies retroactively or not, and state courts and lower federal courts are split on the question, Drinan explained.  
 
Meanwhile, anyone who believes that it is never too late for a young person to turn their life around should support every effort to extend the philosophy that drove the Miller and Graham rulings, Drinan said. 
 
She proposed the creation of “Miller Commissions” in each state that would review extreme juvenile sentences, whether or not they are technically within the purview of the Graham and Miller rulings. 
 
Drinan also argued for the urgent need to keep juvenile and adult inmates separated in the prison environment, because in the case of kids, at least, there is still a good chance for rehabilitation.
 
“No one, especially a child, should be defined exclusively by his or her worst mistake,” Drinan concluded.  
 
Founded in 1989 by the Saint John Paul II Guild of Catholic Lawyers, a student organization of Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law, the Mirror of Justice Scholars Award recognizes law school faculty members whose commitment to the teaching of the law advances our insights towards achieving justice through law in contemporary society.
 
At the conclusion of her lecture, Jennifer Bruneau, William Russell, and Travis Drost -- President, Vice-President, and Secretary of the Guild, respectively – presented Drinan with the Mirror of Justice award.