U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Bars Mandatory Life in Prison for Juveniles Convicted in Murder Cases

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled the Eighth Amendment bars mandatory sentences of life in prison without parole for juveniles convicted of murder.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion. “Mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments,’ ” Kagan wrote.

The 5-4 decision striking down the mandatory punishment scheme extends the court’s 2010 ruling in Graham v. Florida, which barred sentences of life without parole for juveniles who have not been charged with murder.

The court ruled in two cases involving 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.

Kagan said state law in both cases did not give any discretion to sentencing judges and juries. “State law mandated that each juvenile die in prison even if a judge or jury would have thought that his youth and its attendant characteristics, along with the nature of his crime, made a lesser sentence (for example,life with the possibility of parole) more appropriate,” she said. “Such a scheme prevents those meting out punishment from considering a juvenile’s ‘lessened culpability’ and greater ‘capacity for change,’ ” two characteristics cited in Graham v. Florida.

The majority left for another day the broader argument that the Constitution requires a categorical bar on life without parole for juveniles, at least for those 14 and younger. “But given all we have said in [this decision and others] about children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon,” Kagan said.

The cases are Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote a concurring opinion joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. He said the Eighth Amendment would bar a life sentence for the youth who participated in the video store robbery if there is no finding he killed or intended to kill the victim.

The dissenters were Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Roberts pointed out that nearly 2,500 prisoners are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for murders they committed before the age of 18. More than 2,000 received the sentence because it was mandatory. “The pertinent law here is the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits ‘cruel and unusual punishments,’ ” Roberts wrote. “Today, the court invokes that Amendment to ban a punishment that the court does not itself characterize as unusual, and that could not plausibly be described as such.” His opinion was joined by the three other dissenters.

A dissent by Alito, joined by Scalia, said the court had long ago abandoned the original meaning of the Eighth Amendment. “The court now holds that Congress and the legislatures of the 50 states are prohibited by the Constitution from identifying any category of murderers under the age of 18 who must be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole,” Alito wrote. “Even a 17½-year-old who sets off a bomb in a crowded mall or guns down a dozen students and teachers is a ‘child’ and must be given a chance to persuade a judge to permit his release into society. Nothing in the Constitution supports this arrogation of legislative authority.”

Thomas wrote a separate dissent that was also joined by Scalia.

ABA President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III issued a statement hailing the decision. “We are gratified that the court followed its precedents in Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida in determining that juvenile offenders are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes,” Robinson said. “Juveniles are less morally culpable and more capable of rehabilitation than adults convicted of the same crimes.”

Updated at 2:20 p.m. to include Robinson’s statement.

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Justices Question Mandatory Life-Without-Parole Sentences for Juveniles”

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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