Supreme Court case: juvenile offenders serving life in prison
The Supreme Court on Monday takes up two cases that explore the question: Should juveniles convicted of nonlethal crimes be sentenced to life in prison without parole?
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"When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the state can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the state cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity," Justice Kennedy wrote.Skip to next paragraph
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Life without parole for a juvenile is similar to the imposition of a death sentence, says Sullivan's lawyer, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala. In both cases, the punishment is disproportionate to the moral culpability of the offender, he says.
"A child's character is still in flux," Mr. Stevenson writes in his brief. "They are unfinished products, human works-in-progress.... Their potential for growth and change is enormous. Almost all of them will outgrow criminal behavior."
"Juveniles are more malleable and capable of reform than adults," writes Graham's lawyer, Bryan Gowdy, in his brief. "It is cruel to simply give up on them."
Only two individuals in the United States are serving life prison terms for nonhomicide crimes committed at age 13. Both are in Florida. In addition to Florida, five states have sentenced juveniles to life in prison for nonhomicide crimes: Louisiana, Iowa, California, Nebraska, and South Carolina.
Nationwide, an estimated 2,500 inmates are serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles; 109 of those sentences were handed down for nonhomicide crimes.
No national consensus has emerged against the imposition of life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, says Florida Solicitor General Scott Makar. Forty-two states permit such sentences, and 38 of them allow it for nonhomicides, he says.
Mr. Makar acknowledges social science and medical research show that juveniles are developmentally different from adults and thus less culpable for their crimes. But, he says, state lawmakers were aware of these findings when they adopted sentencing laws that include age as a factor.
"Florida's legislature, as well as that of every other state, has closely and repeatedly reviewed juvenile justice and sentencing matters over the past 20 years, when crime rates soared and societal concerns justifiably mounted," he writes. "States must have ongoing flexibility to decide what mix of incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation their criminal justice systems will pursue."
If the high court declares life without parole unconstitutional for juveniles guilty of nonhomicide crimes, Mr. Gowdy says, state lawmakers will retain the ability to mete out long prison terms for juvenile offenders. But they would have to afford an opportunity for parole. In addition, juveniles guilty of homicide would still be eligible for a life sentence without parole.
Texas recently eliminated juvenile life sentences without parole from its sentencing statute. It now offers parole eligibility after 40 years in prison. The Texas law applies to all juveniles facing life in prison, including those guilty of homicide.
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