UPDATED: Supreme Court Forbids Mandatory Life Sentences Without Parole for Juveniles

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UPDATED Tuesday, 9:23 a.m.: WASHINGTON - Advocates for juvenile justice reform applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 5-to-4 ruling yesterday that children under 18 could not be handed life imprisonment sentences without hope of release – even if convicted of murder – without taking into account their age and other extenuating circumstances at the time of the crime.

“Held: The Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders,” read the majority opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan, which combined the court’s ruling on two cases, Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, sharply disagreeing that such sentences constituted cruel and unusual punishment for what were “heinous” crimes to society.

“Put simply, if a 17-year-old is convicted of deliberately murdering an innocent victim, it is not ‘unusual’ for the murderer to receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole,” Roberts wrote. Kagan responded in a footnote to her opinion that she finds it ironic that the dissenters are holding a 14-year-old’s actions to the same standard as a 17-year-old’s, given that the main finding of the majority is that courts must take individual circumstances into account before deciding on a sentence.

Bryan Stevenson of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative, who separately argued both petitions in front of the Supreme Court in March, said he was delighted by the ruling. “We think the court has made an incredibly important step forward in what I regard as one of the incredibly large tragedies in the American criminal justice system,” he said. “Some of the people affected by this decision have been in prison for over 40 years.”

The vast majority of the 2,500 people serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed while they were less than 18 years old are in states with mandatory sentencing laws, Stevenson said. When judges are provided discretion by the law, he said, they usually choose a less harsh punishment.

Both Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs dealt with 14-year-old boys who had been handed life sentences without parole under Arkansas and Alabama laws that mandated the sentence regardless of the defendant’s unique situation.

Jackson v. Hobbs concerned 14-year-old Kuntrell Jackson, who decided to rob a video store with friends but who entered the store just shortly before his friend fatally shot the video store clerk. Jackson was sentenced to life without parole because of his involvement in the crime, even though he said he did not know his friend had a gun and intended to use it.

Miller v. Alabama involved another 14-year-old, Evan Miller, who along with a friend robbed and beat a neighbor with a baseball bat after a night of drinking, then set his trailer on fire, killing him.

A 2005 ruling by the court, in Simmons v. Roper, banned the death penalty for minors, and another, for Graham v. Florida in 2010, banned life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who committed crimes other than homicide. Yesterday’s ruling extended that ban to mandatory life-without-parole sentences even for those minors who are convicted of homicide-related crimes. However, the ruling does not explicitly void the sentences for Jackson and Miller, but instead sends their cases back to a lower trial court for a rehearing.

Both Roper and Graham had acknowledged that children lacked the maturity and judgment of adults, that children were capable of reform, and that children could not be given an adult punishment without consideration of their minor status, Stevenson said in his oral arguments for Jackson v. Hobbs in front of the court.

“They're not thinking three steps ahead; they're not thinking about consequences; they're not actually experienced enough with the world to understand how they deal with their frustrations in the same way that an adult is,” Stevenson said. “And so, their judgments about what they intend to do, their declarations, mean something very, very different.”

As children’s brain development is not “crime-specific,” he said, using language that Justice Kagan echoed in her own opinion, those juveniles convicted of homicides should be given the same consideration as those convicted of non-homicide crimes.

For the hundreds of other individuals in jail who believe they are now eligible for a reduced sentence, Stevenson said, the next step will vary from state to state: Some states offer remedies and others even deny such inmates the right to a lawyer.

Although the court did not bar juveniles from ever receiving a life sentence without parole, Justice Kagan’s opinion made clear that the court expected “this harshest possible penalty” to be rarely applied, given that children’s brains were different from adults’ and given the difficulty in deciding whether a youth’s crimes stemmed from “unfortunate but transient immaturity” or from “irreparable corruption.”

Nancy Gannon Hornberger, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Coalition for Juvenile Justice, a national network of citizen advisers who work with state agencies on preventing delinquency and juvenile crime, praised the ruling, saying it allowed juveniles to be held accountable for their actions while leaving room for compassion and rehabilitation.

The decision to extend the ban to mandatory sentencing for all youth under 18 surprised some court-watchers, who had expected the court to extend the ban only to youth who had not actually committed the murder themselves, or to those who committed the crime when they were as young as 14.

The sticking point, as justice after justice questioned Stevenson during oral arguments earlier this year, was at which age the court should draw the line at a ban on life without parole, and how that line could be justified.

“It actually makes more sense that they did not pick a random age,” said Nadia Seeratan, a senior staff attorney and policy advocate at the National Juvenile Defender Center.

Given the court’s past findings about children’s brain development, she said, “They’ve followed and stayed consistent with those decisions.”

Check out more of Youth Today’s coverage of the Supreme Court’s JLWOP decision: