The rehabilitative powers of education: a matter of faith?

My previous post discussed the issue of providing education services to juvenile offenders in prison who are serving life sentences. But the case of Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida, which were argued before the Supreme Court on Monday, raised broader questions as well: to what extent do we believe in the transformative and rehabilitative powers of education? Are certain young people in our society absolutely beyond repair? Do we have a duty to try to rehabilitate before we punish for life?

The state of Florida argued that the purpose of these life without parole sentences is purely to punish and to deter. But even the government conceded on Monday that sociological data suggests that, due to a difference in brain chemistry, the deterrence effect for juveniles will be much smaller than for adults.  The Supreme Court first suggested in the case of Thompson v. Oklahoma, for example, that offenders under 16-years-old do not consider the consequence of death sentence for homicides. The Court then visited the same theme in subsequent cases dealing with juvenile death penalty.  Case law and a host of solid research findings therefore make the deterrence argument much less forceful.

As to punishment, the same arguments about brain development and chemistry call into question of whether youth offenders are as morally culpable — and therefore deserving of a harsh punishment — as adult offenders.

More importantly, I think few would argue that the underlying premise to both the punishment and deterrence rationales is that the youth offenders are basically beyond rehabilitation, and therefore nothing less than lifetime containment would work to protect society against them.  If we knew that these youthful transgressions — horrendous transgressions, to be sure — would never recur, that the offenders themselves would grow up and change and become better people, would we still be so eager to lock them away for life?

This is why a group of educators submitted an amicus brief on behalf of the youths. The brief argues that

sentencing children to die in prison for non-homicide offenses senselessly ignores children’s capacity for growth and rehabilitation so early in their lives, wrongly treating those adolescents as irretrievably depraved.

The question is, at its core, an empirical one. The amicus brief therefore cites a host of studies and statistics about adolescent brain development, the susceptibility of children to negative influences, and the success of charter schools and innovative learning strategies in helping at-risk youths. Despite a lot of scientific-sounding conclusions and citations, however, the brief was a bit low on concrete numbers and figures, relying instead on more generalized and qualitative arguments.

This is partly because the empirical data we have today about the success of rehabilitation is still inconclusive and debatable, and it will be for years to come.  The moral conclusions we can draw from these data is even more of a matter for debate.

This means that whether education can indeed be an effective rehabilitation tool can’t help but be a question of faith. Those who have faith in humanity’s ability to change and grow are bound to also have faith in the transformative power of education, and those who are more cynical of humanity’s ability to change would be more skeptical of the need for education as well.

When the justices decide the question of whether life without parole for juvenile offenders who did not kill necessarily violates the 8th Amendment, they will be passing judgment on the transformative powers of education as well. Do they have faith?

Related post: Should they learn?

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