Life Sentences for Young Murderers Limited by High Court

A divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can’t impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juveniles who are convicted of taking part in a murder.

The justices, voting 5-4, said states violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment when they don’t allow for the option of a shorter sentence.

“By making youth (and all that accompanies it) irrelevant to imposition of that harshest prison sentence, such a scheme poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the court.

Juvenile sentencing has been an area of concern for the nation’s highest court over the past decade. In 2005, the court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles, saying their lack of maturity made them “categorically less culpable than the average criminal.” In 2010, the court extended that reasoning to bar life-without-parole sentences for youths convicted of a crime other than murder.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that he supported the decision because “as a former prosecutor I believe in strong and appropriate sentences for serious crimes, but I also believe that children are different from adults and should be treated differently under the law.”

The justices ruled today in two cases. One involved Evan Miller, who was 14 at the time he killed his neighbor, Cole Cannon, in Lawrence County, Alabama, in 2003. Prosecutors said Miller and an accomplice robbed and beat Cannon before setting his trailer on fire and killing him in the process.

Violent Family

The second case concerned Kuntrell Jackson, who was convicted for his role in the 1999 shooting death of a video-store clerk during a robbery in Blytheville, Arkansas. Jackson, who had turned 14 less than a month earlier, said he served only as the lookout in the attempted heist and that another boy fired the fatal shot.

Jackson didn’t learn his friend was carrying a gun until they were on their way to the video store and “his age could well have affected his calculation of the risk that posed, as well as his willingness to walk away at that point,” Kagan wrote. Also relevant was Jackson’s “family background and immersion in violence,” Kagan wrote. Both his mother and grandmother had previously shot other individuals.

“Under these schemes, every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other -- the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one,” Kagan wrote for the majority.

Dissenting Opinion

The majority incorrectly invoked the Eighth Amendment’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment against a punishment that’s not unusual, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a dissent joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

Almost 2,500 prisoners are serving life-without-parole sentences for murders committed before age 18, Roberts said.

“Put simply, if a 17-year-old is convicted of deliberately murdering an innocent victim, it is not ’unusual’ for the murderer to receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole,” Roberts wrote. “That reality should preclude finding that mandatory life imprisonment for juvenile killers violates the Eighth Amendment.”

Thirty-eight states, along with the federal government, have laws that permit life-without-parole sentences for youthful murderers. Even so, those sentences are rare for the youngest offenders. Miller and Jackson are among 79 people serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed at age 13 or 14, according to their lawyers.

’Arrogation’ of Authority

Barring states and the U.S. Congress from imposing mandatory life-without-parole sentences on any category of juveniles is an “arrogation of legislative authority,” Alito wrote in a separate dissent joined by Scalia.

“Even a 17 1/2-year-old who sets off a bomb in a crowded mall or guns down a dozen students and teachers is a ’child’ and must be given a chance to persuade a judge to permit his release into society,” Alito wrote.

The cases are Miller v. Alabama, 10-9646, and Jackson v. Hobbs, 10-9647.

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