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SCOTUS revisits juvenile sentencing issue

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week in a case involving juvenile offenders. The decision will affect hundreds of offenders convicted as minors and currently serving life sentences without parole.

This is the fourth case since 2005's Roper v. Simmons decision to look at sentencing schemes for minors. Roper found the death penalty for juvenile offenders unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment saying:

  • When a juvenile offender commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity.

In 2010, the court went a step further, barring mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for minors convicted of non-homicide serious crimes (Graham v. Florida). Again, the court reasoned that a minor lacks the maturity of judgment, lacks the moral sense that an adult has. As a result, the severity of a mandatory sentence of life without parole amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and, so, was unconstitutional.

The court was not saying that no juvenile offender should be sentenced to life without parole. Rather, the court was saying that mandatory sentencing removed a trial court's own assessment of the offender's character and circumstances from the process. The opinion allowed lower courts to remember that a minor may yet be rehabilitated and to factor that in to the sentencing decision.

A few years later, the court applied the same logic to juveniles convicted of murder. The Miller v. Alabama decision in 2012 banned only mandatory sentences of life without parole. The court again gave trial courts more discretion.

The current case, Montgomery v. Louisiana, asks the court to extend Miller to another class of offender: those already serving life-without-parole sentences at the time Miller was decided. It is an unusual question, to say the least.

Generally, court decisions look forward: From this moment, juvenile offenders will no longer be subject to the death penalty or to mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole. In certain circumstances, though, decisions will reach back to include others. The justices will have to determine if this issue qualifies.

We'll keep an eye out for a decision, though it doesn't look as if one is expected any time soon.

Sources:

SCOTUS Blog, "Argument analysis: A barrier to deciding juvenile sentencing issue?" Lyle Denniston, Oct. 13, 2015

SCOTUS Blog, "Opinion recap: Narrow ruling on young murderers’ sentences," Lyle Denniston, June 25, 2012

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