Supreme Court Rejects Mandatory Life Sentences for Juvenile Murderers

On Monday, June 25, 2012, a divided Supreme Court ruling said that states may not impose on juvenile murderers mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole.

The 5-4 ruling said such mandatory sentences offend the constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and follow a trend at the court of treating even the worst juvenile offenders differently from adults.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, said the decision was consistent with the court’s past findings that children lack maturity and have an underdeveloped sense of responsibility; that they are more vulnerable to outside pressure and that their character is less formed and more open to rehabilitation.

“Our decisions rested not only on common sense — on what ‘any parent knows’ — but on science and social science as well,” Kagan wrote, adding “the mandatory penalty schemes at issue here prevent the sentencer from taking account of these central considerations.”

The decision said judges may still sentence juveniles convicted of murder to a life sentence without possibility of parole, but must take into consideration mitigating circumstances.

The opinion was joined by Kagan’s fellow liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, as well as by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who most often sides with conservatives but has authored the court’s previous opinions about juvenile offenders.

It drew sharp rebukes from the court’s conservatives, including Justice Samuel Alito, who said from the bench that the ruling represented an “elite vision” from the court that it knows better than the states, 29 of whom authorize mandatory sentences for juvenile murders.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in a dissent joined by Alito and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, elaborated.

“Determining the appropriate sentence for a teenager convicted of murder presents grave and challenging questions of morality and social policy,” Roberts wrote. “Our role, however, is to apply the law, not to answer such questions.”

He said mandatory life sentences “could not plausibly be described” as unusual when a majority of states endorse them.

In 2005, the court banned the death penalty for juveniles who kill, saying “the punishment of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is itself a severe sanction, in particular for a young person.”

In 2010, the court continued the trend by saying juveniles whose crimes did not include murder could not be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole at some point.

Kennedy wrote both opinions for the divided court.

The cases at the court were brought by lawyers for the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., which had asked the court to ban life sentences for juveniles 15 and younger when they committed their crimes.

The cases before the justices came from two 14-year-olds who were sentenced to life without parole for their roles in separate killings.

Evan Miller, a victim of abuse so severe that, his lawyer said, he had tried to kill himself five times, was convicted along with another juvenile of killing a neighbor, 52-year-old Cole Cannon, and setting afire Cannon’s trailer in Lawrence County, Ala.

Kuntrell Jackson of Blytheville, Ark., was with two other youths who attempted to rob a video store. One of the others used a sawed-off shotgun to kill 28-year-old clerk Laurie Troup.

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