WASHINGTON — Some teenage murderers may eventually gain their freedom, as a divided Supreme Court on Monday struck down mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of capital crimes.
In a pair of horrific cases arising out of two Southern states, the court by a 5-4 vote concluded that a mandatory sentencing rule that sends teenage convicted killers to prison without possibility of parole amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
“In imposing a state’s harshest penalties, a sentencer misses too much if he treats every child as an adult,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. “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.”
The ruling undercuts laws in 28 states, and in the federal government, which impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles as well as adults convicted of certain forms of murder. The ruling also provoked a sharply worded set of dissents from conservative justices who warned ominously that the public will now be at greater risk.
Currently, more than 2,500 individuals are serving life without parole for murders committed when they were under 18. About 2,100 of them were convicted in states where they faced mandatory life sentences; these are the inmates who now eventually could secure their freedom.
“What the majority is saying is that members of society must be exposed to the risk that these convicted murderers, if released from custody, will murder again,” Justice Samuel Alito declared.
Alito underscored his unhappiness by reading his dissent at length from the bench. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. added his own written dissent, arguing that the court should leave such sentencing policy decisions up to state legislatures. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas also dissented. Joining Kagan in the majority were Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.
Evan Miller was 14 years old in 2003 when he beat his intoxicated 52-year-old neighbor with a baseball bat, set his couch on fire and left him to die in the blaze. Miller was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole, which Alabama sets as the minimum sentence for aggravated murder.
In 1999, Arkansas resident Kuntrell Jackson was likewise 14 when he and two fellow teenagers went to rob a Movie Magic video store in the town of Blytheville. When the clerk resisted, one of Jackson’s associates shot her in the head with a sawed-off shotgun. Jackson, whose juvenile arrest record dated back to before he was 10, was convicted for his role in the lethal robbery and sentence to life without parole.
A potentially important difference between Jackson and Miller, and a main reason why the two cases were argued separately, is that Miller was the actual killer, while Jackson was essentially an accomplice. The court’s majority, though, lumped the two types of murder together for the sake of its ruling Monday.
“A judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty for juveniles,” Kagan wrote.
Relatively few inmates are in prison for murders committed when they were as young as Jackson or Miller, but teenagers do kill. Each year, Justice Department records show, 17-year-olds commit an average of 424 murders and non-negligent homicides.
The ruling extends earlier court decisions restricting the kinds of punishments meted out to juveniles. In a 2005 case from Missouri, the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to sentence someone to death for a crime committed while under age 18.
The court followed up in 2010, ruling in a Florida case that a juvenile could not be sentenced to life without parole for a non-capital offense; in other words, one that didn’t involve murder and the possibility of a death sentence.
In all these cases, justices have cited the biological and psychological characteristics that distinguish juveniles from adults, including the tendency toward impulsive behavior and susceptibility to peer pressure.
“The court has rightly returned discretion to the sentencer to make individualized determinations about each youth who stands before them, based on that youth’s particular qualities and degree of blameworthiness,” declared Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center.
Human Rights Watch, which studied the California inmates now serving life without parole, likewise praised the decision as a “landmark.”
The attorneys general for Idaho, Florida and 17 other states had urged the Supreme Court to let the states continue to work out their own sentencing policies rather than impose a national rule.
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