The Supreme Court today struck down mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles homicide offenders – a ruling that will affect the laws in 29 states.
Justice Elena Kagan writing for a 5-4 court ruled, "Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him—and from which he cannot usually extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional."
"Although we do not foreclose a sentencer's ability to make that judgment in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison," said Kagan.
The Supreme Court ruled the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.
The 5-4 decision is the latest in a series from the court limiting the penalties imposed on juvenile offenders who commit violent crimes. In 2005 - in a case called Roper v. Simmons - the court rejected the death penalty for juveniles, and in 2010 - in Graham v. Florida - it said that juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses can no longer receive sentences of life without parole.
Those decisions were written by Justice Anthony Kennedy who relied on scientific evidence regarding the development of children's brains.
Today's opinion dealt with two different cases regarding offenders who were 14 years old at the time of the crime. One involves Evan Miller, of Alabama, who beat a neighbor and then set the man's trailer on fire so that he burned to death. Miller's lawyers say their client was a victim of serious domestic abuse throughout his childhood.
The other case involves Kuntrell Jackson who was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for felony murder that occurred in Arkansas in 1999 less than three weeks after his 14th birthday. Jackson and two friends attempted to rob a local video store, killing the store's clerk, Laurie Troup. Jackson, who didn't pull the trigger, was charged as an adult.
Lawyers for both Miller and Jackson praised today's decision. "This is an important win for children. The Court took a significant step forward by recognizing the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that don't allow sentencers to consider the unique status of children and their potential for change," said Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who represents Jackson and Miller. "The Court has recognized that children need additional attention and protection in the criminal justice system."
Kagan said the Court's decision "rested not only on common sense, on what 'any parent knows,' but on science and social science as well."
But Chief Justice John Roberts, wrote a dissent and was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.
"It is a great tragedy when a juvenile commits murder—most of all for the innocent victims. But also for the murderer whose life has gone so wrong early," wrote Roberts.
But he pointed out that currently there are nearly 2,500 prisoners presently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for murders they committed before the age of 18. He said the majority of the Court showed lack of respect for elected officials "by asserting that legislators have accidentally required 2,000 teenagers to spend the rest of their lives in jail."