News 06.26.12

Supreme Court Rejects Life Sentences for Juveniles

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court on Monday rejected laws in 28 states that mandated life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.

The justices ruled in two cases of 14-year-old boys, one from Alabama and one from Arkansas, who were given life terms for their roles in homicides, but the decision applies to all juveniles sentenced under mandatory laws, reported the Los Angeles Times.

Speaking for the court, Justice Elena Kagan said the decisions of the last decade had established, or restored, the principle that “children are different” when it comes to criminal punishments.

“Our decisions rested not only on common sense — on what ‘any parent knows’ — but on science and social science as well,” she said. Juveniles are immature and are less deserving of the harshest punishments, she said.

In the case of young people who take part in a homicide, “a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty,” Kagan said. “We therefore hold that mandatory life without parole for those under age 18 at the time of their crimes violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.'”

Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor agreed.

While Monday’s decision does not free any prisoner, more than 2,000 inmates can now receive new sentences or parole hearings.  And though it doesn’t prevent judges from imposing life terms on juveniles convicted of murder in the future, it establishes a new constitutional rule that prisoners can cite in their appeals.

Out of the 292 DNA exonerations across the country, 17 were juveniles when convicted and two received life sentences: Michael Anthony Williams of Louisiana was 16 years old when he was arrested and convicted of a rape he did not commit and 40 when he was exonerated. Anthony Caravella of Florida was 15 years old at arrest and 16 years old when he was convicted of a sexual assault and murder he did not commit and spent 26 years in prison before his exoneration.

The decision was the third in a decade that limits punishment for juveniles. In 2005, the death penalty for juveniles convicted of murder was abolished, and in 2010, the justices ruled that life sentences without parole were unconstitutional for juveniles who commit crimes short of murder.

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