Court Strikes Mandatory Life Without Parole Sentences for Juveniles

There’s been a plethora of legal news here at UrbanFaith in the last week, what with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and Arizona’s Controversial immigration law, and a federal judge issuing a permanent injunction in the ongoing New York City public school worship ban battle. Neglected among these stories was another U.S. Supreme Court decision issued last Monday (June 25) that ends mandatory life without the possibility of parole sentences for juvenile offenders.

The court ruled that laws requiring youths convicted of murder to be sentenced to die in prison violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment,” The New York Times reported.  In her majority opinion, Justice Elena Kagan referred to two earlier death penalty cases that limited penalties for juvenile offenders, according to The Times. In Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Court eliminated the juvenile death penalty and in Graham v. Florida (2010), it ruled that life without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional except in the case of a murder conviction.

“The decision was based on the consolidated cases of Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, who were both given life-in-prison sentences with no chance of parole for their involvement in homicides when they were 14 years old. In essence the majority argued that children are not adults corrupted beyond redemption, but unformed people with the capacity to change and grow,” The Root reported. “The ruling does not automatically free any of the estimated 2,000 prisoners serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles (60 percent of whom are black); nor does it forbid such life terms for youths convicted of homicide,” the article said. “Rather, sentencing judges must first take into account the offender’s age, the nature of the crime and other mitigating factors.” The article also includes an interview with Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who represented Jackson and Miller before the Supreme Court.

The ruling doesn’t bar sentences of life without the possibility of parole, The Christian Science Monitor reported in an editorial, but “judges and juries must first assess a minor’s capacity for reform” because, the court reasoned, “only a small percentage of adolescents develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior.”

“The court insists that these new theories about a child’s emotional and moral states reflect ‘the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,'” the editorial said. In the paper’s view, “this materialist view of character development … relies too simply on the latest interpretations of brain science, which can create a sharp line of age in judging a person’s willingness to change.” The Monitor agreed with dissenting Chief Justice John Roberts, who it said, “chided” the majority “for not regarding those over 16 or 18 years old as also capable of rehabilitation.” Roberts was joined in his dissent by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The two cases under consideration were originally tried in Alabama and Arkansas, The Birmingham News reported. “Most” of its commenters think the Supreme Court got this decision wrong. A writer using the alias MOP, for example, wrote, “I don’t think I’m in the minority when I say I don’t want to see somebody who murdered anybody in cold blood set free. … I believe people can change, but anybody who takes the life of a helpless person would have to go a long way to convince me that they could be a good law-abiding citizen.”

Likewise, the families of Miller’s and Jackson’s victims told told The Daily Beast that they dread having to provide victim statements at new sentencing hearings. In Miller’s case, the Court cited his highly “pathological background” in its decision, the article said, but his victim’s daughter reportedly said, “Just because you have a bad childhood doesn’t give you an excuse to commit cold-blooded murder.” “We thought it was all behind us and done where you could move on,” the mother of the victim in Jackson’s case reportedly said. “Now it’s all being relived again.” Jackson was an accomplice in that murder.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry took the opposite position in a brief it filed in the case. In a press release supporting the Court’s decision, AACAP said, “Recent research has also demonstrated that the brain continues to change and develop throughout the teen years and into early adulthood. As a result, adolescents are more likely to respond impulsively, utilizing a more primitive part of their brain. Additionally, the deterrent value of life without parole has yet to be demonstrated. It is particularly unlikely to deter adolescents from crime, as they tend to live in the present, think of themselves as invincible, and have difficulty contemplating the long-term consequences of their behavior.”

Already a 56-year-old Philadelphia man who has been in jail since 1975 for a murder he committed as a teenager has asked to be released in light of the ruling, the Associated Press reported today. “Pennsylvania prisons have nearly a quarter of the nation’s approximately 2,100 teen lifers because state sentencing laws give judges only two options for anyone convicted of first-degree murder: a death sentence or life in prison without parole. Also, Pennsylvania juveniles of any age can be tried as adults,” the article said.

What do you think?

Did the Supreme Court get this ruling right, or is juvenile brutality a good enough predictor of future action to justify life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders?