Twenty-nine states have laws requiring mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole for children who commit murder. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, just struck down the mandatory nature of these laws.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion in which she stated, “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.” These mandates violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.
Judges and juries can still impose such sentences but, the opinion says, “a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles.” The decision recognizes that children are not adults. Children have achieved neither maturity nor a fully developed sense of responsibility plus, since their characters are less formed than those of adults, they are more receptive to rehabilitation. These concepts have been reinforced by previous Supreme Court decisions—once in 2005, banning the death penalty for juveniles, and again in 2010, eliminating life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes other than murder.
The dissenters are the usual cast of conservative characters—Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas. Alito stated that the ruling represented an “elite vision” while Roberts expressed the opinion that, since 29 states have such mandatory sentencing laws and, thus, they are not unusual, the Court shouldn’t be ruling on the matter. Roberts’ opinion is shocking in view of the fact that a majority of states have often had laws that violated the rights of others. For example, thirty states once had anti-miscegenation laws, and most states once kept women from voting. The protection of rights, such as protection from cruel and unusual punishments, is exactly the role of the Supreme Court.
As a result of the decision, the two defendants whose separate cases brought about the decision will ask to be resentenced. In the Arkansas case, Kuntrell Jackson was 14 when he took part in a robbery of a video store in 1999. The store’s clerk was actually shot and killed by one of the other boys who participated. Jackson was unarmed during the robbery, but was convicted as an accessory to murder and given the mandatory life-without-parole sentence. The court’s decision now allows Jackson’s sentence to take into account the actual circumstances.
More than 70 other inmates around the country are serving these mandatory sentences for crimes committed when they were 14 or younger. The ruling did not clarify whether they, too, are eligible for resentencing and will require further litigation. However, the 29 states that adopted such statutes now must revise their sentencing guidelines.