Supreme Court bars mandatory life sentences for juveniles

Supreme Court ruling aims to give judges and juries an opportunity to consider 'mitigating circumstances' before sentencing a juvenile offender to life in prison, without possibility of parole.

By , Staff writer

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    The Supreme Court ruled Monday that it is unconstitutional for state laws to require juveniles convicted of murder to be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
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In a major decision issued Monday, the US Supreme Court struck down mandatory sentencing schemes requiring juvenile defendants to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Voting 5 to 4, the high court declared that automatically sentencing someone so young to a lifetime behind bars – with no future prospect than to die in prison – is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.

“The Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the majority decision. “A judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles,” she said.

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Justice Kagan said mandatory sentencing provisions eliminate the ability of a sentencing court to take into consideration all mitigating circumstances about a juvenile’s life and involvement in the crime before concluding that life without parole is appropriate punishment for a young offender.

“Although we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison,” she wrote.

Two justices, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, favored imposing a blanket ban on all life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. While rejecting that option, Kagan noted: “We think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”

Kagan said juvenile offenders should not be punished as harshly as adults, because they are generally less culpable than adults for their crimes, and enjoy a higher capacity to change. Studies have shown that judgment and character are not fully formed until an individual reaches his or her 20s.

The high court used that same rationale concerning the development of the brain and emotional maturity to justify two other landmark rulings – declaring the death penalty for juvenile offenders unconstitutional in 2005 and deciding in 2010 that sentencing a juvenile to life without parole for a non-homicide crime violated the Eighth Amendment. 

The deciding fifth vote in all three cases was cast by the same justice, Anthony Kennedy.

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Monday decision is not a logical extension of the court’s earlier holdings in 2005 and 2010.

“Those cases undoubtedly stand for the proposition that teenagers are less mature, less responsible, and less fixed in their ways than adults – not that a Supreme Court case was needed to establish that,” he said.

“What they do not stand for, and do not even suggest, is that legislators – who also know that teenagers are different from adults – may not require life without parole for juveniles who commit the worst types of murder,” he said.

“The court’s opinion suggests that it is merely a way station on the path to further judicial displacement of the legislative role in prescribing punishment for crime,” the chief justice wrote.

“Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers, giving them greater chance to reform themselves at the risk that they will kill again,” Roberts said. “But that is not our decision to make.”   

Currently about 2,500 individuals are serving life without parole prison sentences for crimes committed when they were younger than 18 years old. Of those, roughly 2,000 of the sentences were mandatory. 

Thirty-eight states and the federal government allow life-without-parole sentences for juveniles. Twenty-nine states include provisions for mandatory life-without-parole sentences.

Monday’s decision stems from two consolidated cases, Evan Miller v. Alabama (10-9646) and Kuntrell Jackson v. Hobbs (10-9647). Both cases involved murders committed when the boys were 14.

Kuntrell Jackson and two friends tried to rob a video shop in Blytheville, Ark., in 1999. While the two friends confronted the shopkeeper with a shotgun and demanded money, Mr. Jackson stood at the shop doorway. When the shopkeeper denied having any money, Jackson allegedly walked into the shop and warned the clerk: “We ain’t playin’.”

The teen with the gun again demanded money. The shopkeeper threatened to call police. She was shot in the head and died. The boys ran from the store without any money.

Although he was not the triggerman, Jackson was found to have played a significant enough role in the killing to warrant a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

The second case took place in Alabama. Evan Miller and a 16-year-old friend decided to rob Mr. Miller’s neighbor. The neighbor had been drinking and fell asleep. Miller took money from his wallet, but the neighbor awoke as the boy tried to slip the empty wallet back into his pocket.

A fight broke out. Miller and his friend beat the neighbor with a baseball bat and then set his trailer on fire.

As the smoke and flames engulfed the trailer, the boys heard the neighbor coughing. The friend started back to pull the man from the flames, but Miller allegedly stopped  him.

The neighbor died of smoke inhalation. The friend later testified against Miller, who was convicted and sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without parole.

“Juveniles will now be entitled to present mitigating evidence in support of sentences that provide for review and the possibility of release,” said Marsha Levick, chief legal counsel at the Juvenile Law Center.

“The court has rightly returned discretion to the sentencer to make individualized determinations about each youth who stands before them, based on that youth’s particular qualities and degree of blamewothiness,” Ms. Levick said in a statement.

Suzanne Nossel of Amnesty International USA praised the ruling as “a step in the right direction.” But she said the US should end the practice of sentencing any juveniles to life without parole.

“The United States stands virtually alone in the world in imposing such sentences, which amount to locking a young person up and throwing the key away for life,” Ms. Nossel said.

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