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Supreme Court Bars Mandatory Life Sentences for Juveniles

The Supreme Court ruled on Monday in the case of Miller v. Alabama that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of homicide are unconstitutional. At the heart of the Court’s opinion is the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, forbidding “cruel and unusual punishment.” Significantly, the Court held that states may not require judges to institute life sentences without the possibility of parole, but did not institute a flat ban on such sentences, even though the ramblings of the dissenting justices would suggest otherwise.

The defendants in these consolidated cases were both fourteen years old at the time of their crimes. Kuntrell Jackson was charged with felony murder after a friend shot a store clerk at the video store they were attempting to rob. The evidence is inconclusive as to whether or not Jackson threatened the store clerk, but it is undisputed that he did not pull the trigger. The other defendant, Evan Miller, was the product of an abusive household and multiple foster homes. Miller dealt the decisive blow that killed his mother’s drug dealer while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

The prosecutor who charged Miller had the option of pursuing the case in juvenile court, but instead tried him as an adult and triggered the mandatory life without parole rule passed by the Alabama legislature. In Alabama and Arkansas, anyone convicted of murder is subject to life without parole, without regard for age or any other potentially mitigating factor. A total of twenty-nine states impose mandatory life without parole sentences on juveniles convicted for murder. As of today, there are more than 2,500 prisoners serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed as children.

Monday’s historic ruling is the most recent in a line of cases bringing the United States closer – but far from all the way – to conforming with international human rights norms regarding criminal punishment, particularly with regard to children. In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to impose a capital sentence on a juvenile. Two years ago, the Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that juveniles charged with nonviolent offenses may not be sentenced to life without parole under the Eighth Amendment. Striking down the state laws that impose an automatic life without parole sentence on juveniles tried for murder was a natural next step in this progression.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kagan harkens back to the Court’s reasoning in Roper and Graham, which suggested that none of the goals of criminal punishment – deterrence, incapacitation, retribution, or rehabilitation – could justify sentences for juveniles as harsh as those meted out to adults. Kagan describes important distinctions between juvenile and adult offenders, including juveniles’ “underdeveloped sense of responsibility,” the incomplete development of the behavior-control part of their brains, increased vulnerability to negative influences, and “less fixed” character traits. Highlighting the importance the Court has previously placed on individualized sentencing schemes, she writes, “Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features – among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.” She adds that the mandatory scheme also precludes consideration of a juvenile offender’s home environments, the circumstances of his crime, the ways in which his immaturity can affect the prosecution itself, and the possibility of rehabilitation, which ought to be most relevant when the offender is a child.

Three justices wrote separate dissents supporting the mandatory sentencing laws. Chief Justice Roberts claims that since these sentences are so commonplace, there is no national consensus for striking them down. Essentially, the Chief Justice believes that since too many states have been wrong on this issue the Supreme Court should let these laws stand.

Justice Alito takes us down a slippery slope in his dissent, worrying that the Court’s narrow ruling would serve to free a hypothetical 17-½-year-old who “sets off a bomb in a crowded mall or guns down a dozen students.” This is misleading, since Alito’s teenaged terrorist could still be sentenced to life without parole after today’s ruling. But Alito isn’t the only one on the highest court that seems a little paranoid.

Justice Thomas believes the Eighth Amendment only serves to prohibit “torturous methods of punishment.” He vehemently argues in his dissent that “even accepting the Court’s precedents, the Court’s holding [today] is unsupportable.” It is well-known that Thomas has his own notions of legal precedent, but in this case his skepticism seemed fueled by concerns that echoed Justice Alito’s dissent. Thomas worries that the majority will later impose a flat ban on juvenile life without parole sentences. And perhaps it will, according to the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” an evocative phrase that has become the hallmark of the Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence. It is not surprising that this prospect would horrify Justice Thomas, whose views on the Eighth Amendment suggest that everything but torture should be on the table when sentencing offenders, including juvenile offenders.

For those of us living in the 21st century, however, today’s ruling was a step in the right direction.