Mandatory Life Sentences for Juveniles Ruled Unconstitutional

  • June 25, 2012
  • By Jim Malewitz

The U.S. Supreme Court says it is unconstitutional for states to impose mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles convicted in murder cases.

In a 5-4 decision on Monday, the court ruled that it is “cruel and unusual” punishment to sentence people under 18 to spend the rest of their lives in prison without considering other options. The decision is consistent with the court's recent rulings on youth sentencing, which struck down the death penalty and life without parole for those convicted of crimes other than murder.

The decision, though a win for those hoping to move youths out of adult court, was narrower than juvenile justice advocates would have preferred. The justices did not throw out life without parole altogether. More simply, they said states must consider alternatives.

Twenty-eight states currently mandate life sentences without parole for at least some youths convicted of murder. Monday's ruling requires lower courts to conduct new sentencing hearings where judges must consider criteria including a defendant's character, life circumstances and age.

"This is an important win for children,” Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said in a release. “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."

The Supreme Court reversed judgments made by the Arkansas Supreme Court and the Alabama Court of Appeals in the cases of two 14-year-olds. In 2003, Evan Miller was convicted by an Alabama jury in the killing of his neighbor, Kenneth Cole. Prosecutors said Miller and an accomplice set fire to Cole's trailer after they robbed and beat him.  Miller was initially charged as a juvenile, but the case was later moved to adult court.

In Arkansas, Kuntrell Jackson was convicted in the 1999 fatal shooting of a video store clerk, though Jackson didn't pull the trigger, according to court documents. He had accompanied two other boys to the store to commit a robbery, but stayed outside for most of it after learning one of the boys was carrying a shotgun, only to enter shortly before the shooting. Jackson was charged with adult capital felony murder and aggravated robbery, and a jury convicted him of both crimes. The trial judge imposed a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

“In neither case did the sentencing authority have any discretion to impose a different punishment,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. “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. Such a scheme prevents those meting out punishment from considering a juvenile's “lessened culpability” and greater “capacity for change.”

Kagan was joined in the opinion by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

The court's narrow ruling leaves several questions unanswered, says Douglas Berman, an expert on criminal justice at the Ohio State University law school. Those questions include whether it is constitutional for states to layer several long sentences atop each other for juveniles — in essence, de facto life sentences — without granting the possibility of parole.

“Even states that don't have formal life without parole sentencing could be affected,” he said. “There's at least language and a suggestion that treating kids as adults…is always going to be on shaky constitutional footing.”

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