(WASHINGTON) — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the Eighth Amendment forbids sentencing that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile murderers.
The 5-4 decision is the latest in a series from the court limiting the penalties imposed on juvenile offenders who commit violent crimes. In 2005 — in a case called Roper v. Simmons — the court rejected the death penalty for juveniles. And in 2010, in Graham v. Florida, it said that juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses can no longer receive sentences of life without parole.
Those decisions were written by Justice Anthony Kennedy who relied on scientific evidence regarding the development of children’s brains.
Today’s opinion dealt with two different cases regarding offenders who were 14 years old at the time of the crime. One involves Evan Miller, of Alabama, who beat a neighbor and then set the man’s trailer on fire so that he burned to death. Miller’s lawyers say their client was a victim of serious domestic abuse throughout his childhood.
The other case involves Kuntrell Jackson who was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for felony murder that occurred in Arkansas in 1999 less than three weeks after his 14th birthday. Jackson and two friends attempted to rob a local video store, killing the store’s clerk, Laurie Troup. Jackson, who didn’t pull the trigger, was charged as an adult.
Bryan A. Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, who represented both Miller and Jackson, argued in court that juveniles should not receive a sentence with no hope at parole, saying that the decision-making in young teens is “categorically different” than that of adults.
“They’re not thinking three steps ahead,” Stevenson told the justices during oral arguments. “They’re not thinking about consequences; they’re not actually experienced enough with the world to understand how they deal with their frustrations in the same way that an adult is.”
Stevenson stressed that life without parole sentences for homicide offenses for juveniles are rare. Currently there are about 2,500 prisoners serving for offenses they committed while under 18, and only about 79 serving for offenses committed while 14 and under.
He asked the justices for a categorical rule banning life without parole for any offender under 18 years old, but said the court could also ban the punishment for a child under 15 years old.
“We’re not arguing that the state has to give away the authority to incarcerate someone even for the rest of their life,” Stevenson told the Justices, but a “meaningful possibility of release.”
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