U.S. Supreme Court - No Mandatory Life Sentences for Juveniles

Automatic Sentences for Juveniles Violate Constitution

Today the United States Supreme Court announced states cannot impose a mandatory sentence of life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder. Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the majority's opinion, said an automatic life sentence in these situations would constitute "cruel and unusual punishment," in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

The decision and reason supporting it followed the Supreme Court's earlier rulings on juvenile crimes. The court banned the death penalty for juveniles in 2005. Five years later in 2010, the Supreme Court said that juveniles convicted of non-homicide related events could not be sentenced to life without parole. Juveniles in these circumstances must have the opportunity for parole at some point in their future.

Juveniles Can Be Rehabilitated

According to Kagan, the problem with mandatory sentencing is that it does not allow a judge to take into consideration the circumstances surrounding the murder. She said that children not only do not possess the maturity and sense of responsibility to fully appreciate their actions, but they are also vulnerable to external influences. Most importantly, she said their character has not been fully developed and is open to rehabilitation.

The decision does not mean that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole. It simply means that the sentence can't be automatic. A judge has to have an opportunity to weigh the factors involved.

The case was sparked by two boys, Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson, both of whom were 14 at the time they were convicted. According to the Washington Post, there are currently 2,300 people serving life without parole for crimes they committed before they were 18. 90 percent of these sentences were mandatory.

Whether the charges be robbery, murder, burglary or sexual assault, the stakes are high for a juvenile charged with a violent crime. Potential consequences include being charged as an adult and being incarcerated for an extended period of time. Juveniles and their families need to learn how the juvenile justice system differs from the adult system as soon as they are charged.

Source: www.washingtonpost.com, "Supreme Court Says States May Not Impose Mandatory Life Sentences on Juvenile Murders," Roberta Barnes, 25 June 2012

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