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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.

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“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.

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“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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