Juvenile Life Sentences Unconstitutional Without Parole

By Deanne Katz, Esq. on June 25, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Juvenile life sentences are not common and they're generally reserved for serious crimes. Those sentences may be even more unusual after Monday's Supreme Court decision on juvenile life without parole. The Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for juveniles violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Sentencing schemes for juveniles must allow for discretion by judges and juries. This rule applies regardless of the crime committed according to the majority opinion in Miller v. Alabama, authored by Justice Elena Kagan.

The 5-4 decision is the latest in a series of decision by the Court that have reformed sentencing laws related to juveniles.

The Court last decided issues of juvenile sentencing in 2010 when it banned life without parole for juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses (Graham v. Florida). Prior to that, in 2005, the Court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles (Roper v. Simmons).

In all three of these cases, the issue is whether the defendant was a juvenile - under 18 years old - at the time the crime was committed.

After today's ruling, if the defendant was a minor at the time of the crime, states cannot mandate a life sentence without parole. The sentencing process must involve some discretion, even if the child is charged as an adult for the crime.

This decision doesn't rule out the possibility of life without parole for a juvenile convicted of a homicide crime such as murder or manslaughter.

Miller v. Alabama requires that if a minor is convicted of homicide, the judge or jury involved in sentencing has the ability to choose between life without parole and a lesser sentence.

The young men involved in this case were both 14 when they were convicted of homicide according to CBS. They were both sentenced to die in prison without the possibility of parole.

Life without parole may be an appropriate sentence for a minor given the specific facts of a homicide. What the Supreme Court now requires is that either judge or jury actively make that decision during sentencing rather than rely on a mandated sentence.

There are currently about 2300 people in the U.S. serving life sentences without parole who committed their crimes as juveniles, reported Arkansas News.

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