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Lives too young to throw away

The case before the Supreme Court challenging life-without-parole sentences for teens is really about hope. Does the Constitution somehow bar the courts from depriving all hope of release from prison for young offenders who, in fact, are not fully responsible for their actions, no matter how heinous?

Judging from recent arguments, the court could be leaning toward yet another landmark decision that would bolster the core tenet of the juvenile-justice system — namely, that youthful offenders deserve a second chance.

A ruling that bans no-parole sentences for juveniles would be the next logical step for the court, in keeping with earlier decisions prohibiting teen executions and barring life-without-parole sentences when a crime does not involve a killing.

The science behind ending throw-away-the-key jail sentences for youths is compelling, with the widely held understanding that teenagers' brains are not fully developed. That means young criminals have a diminished capability to understand the consequences of their actions, and can be swayed easily by peer pressure to commit crimes.

Although juvenile criminals still rightly could be locked away for years, their youth makes some good candidates for rehabilitation, with parole being a prime motivation.

Many crime victims' loved ones certainly would say that the callous act of a juvenile offender shouldn't warrant him any second chances. At the same time, though, there are notable examples of victims' survivors eloquently arguing against no-parole sentences for teens.

As the swing vote on this and many issues, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that one approach could be to ban mandatory no-parole terms but give judges the discretion to impose them. That could be only marginally better than the current state of affairs, however, since it would mean judges have to decide whether to simply play it safe and send a young murderer away for life.

There's no doubt that teens should be deemed less culpable based on their mental development, so an outright ban on no-parole sentences for juveniles would be the best course — as well as the most practical.

For Pennsylvania, it cannot come soon enough. The state has locked up more juveniles for life than any other, with more than 440 behind bars. That's too many young lives already for which there is little hope.