A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the states may not mandate life-without-parole sentences for juvenile murderers.
The court’s 5-4 rulings in two cases involving 14-year-olds stopped short of holding that juveniles convicted of murder could never receive such a sentence. But a judge would have to consider the circumstances. Still, the court did not limit its holding against mandated life-without-parole sentences to younger juveniles, as some expected.
“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,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority in Miller v. Alabama (Case No. 10-9646) and Jackson v. Hobbs (No. 10-9647). “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.”
Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor joined her opinion.
Kagan stressed two decisions authored by Kennedy in holding that mandatory life-without-parole for juvenile murderers violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In a 2005 decision by Kennedy in Roper v. Simmons, the court prohibited the death penalty for offenders who committed their crimes before age 18. In a 2010 ruling known as Graham v. Florida, also by Kennedy, the court held that a sentence of life in prison without parole for a juvenile offender in a nonhomicide case was unconstitutional.
“Our decisions rested not only on common sense—on what any parent knows—but on science and social science as well,” Kagan wrote today. “In Roper, we cited studies showing that only a relatively small proportion of adolescents who engage in illegal activity develop entrenched patterns of problem behavior. And in Graham, we noted that developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds—for example, in parts of the brain involved in behavior control.”
The decision prompted sharp dissents from the court’s conservative bloc.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing the main dissent for himself and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito Jr., said, “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 so early.”
“Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers, giving them a greater chance to reform themselves at the risk that they will kill again,” the chief justice continued. “But that is not our decision to make. Neither the text of the Constitution nor our precedent prohibits legislatures from requiring that juvenile murderers be sentenced to life without parole.”
Alito read from the bench parts of his dissent, which was joined by Scalia. He was especially concerned with the broad application of the majority’s holding to all those under age 18.
“Even a 17½-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 said. “Nothing in the Constitution supports this arrogation of legislative authority.”
Miller v. Alabama involved Evan Miller, who was 14 in 2003 when he was convicted with another adolescent of starting a fire that killed a neighbor with whom he had an altercation. Miller was convicted as an adult of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole. The other boy received a lesser sentence in exchange for testifying against Miller.
Jackson v. Hobbs involved Kuntrell Jackson, who was 14 in 1999 when he participated with two older boys in the robbery of an Arkansas video store. Although it was one of the other boys who shot and killed a store clerk with a shotgun, Jackson was convicted of capital murder and aggravated robbery, and the trial judge was legally barred from considering his level of involvement, so Jackson received a life-without-parole sentence.
The high court’s decision reverses state court decisions upholding the life-without-parole sentences for both youths and sends the cases back to those courts for further proceedings. In a concurring opinion joined by Sotomayor, Breyer stressed that if Arkansas seeks to persuade a trial judge to reinstate a life-without-parole sentence, the Eighth Amendment would likely forbid it in Jackson’s particular case.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.