U.S. Supreme Court

Justices Question Mandatory Life-Without-Parole Sentences for Juveniles


Supreme Court justices weighing the constitutionality of life-without-parole sentences for juveniles implicated in murders appeared troubled on Tuesday by laws that make the punishment mandatory.

Among them was swing voter Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, author of two 5-4 opinions on juvenile punishment, report the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. One of his opinions struck down the death penalty for juveniles and the other overturned life-without-parole sentences for youths who commit crimes other than murder. Maybe a life term could be justified in some cases, Kennedy said during oral arguments, but it “cannot be mandatory.”

Both cases before the court involved juveniles convicted for their part in murders at the age of 14. One joined with an older youth to beat a neighbor and set fire to his home. Another participated in an armed robbery of a video store in which one of the other youths shot and killed a clerk.

According to the New York Times, a majority of the justices “appeared prepared to take an additional step in limiting such punishments, but it was not clear whether it would be modest or large.” The story outlines several options: The court could bar life without parole for offenders under age 15, or for all offenders. It could bar a life sentence in felony murders, where the defendant doesn’t pull the trigger. Or it could bar mandatory life sentences.

According to the Los Angeles Times, banning mandatory sentences “seemed to be gaining ground” by the end of the oral arguments. The cases are Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs.

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “ABA Amicus Brief Says Life Without Parole Is Unconstitutional in Juvenile Murder Cases”

ABAJournal.com: “Supreme Court to Decide Constitutionality of Life Sentences for Juveniles in Murder Cases”

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