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High Court Bars Mandatory Life Terms For Juveniles

The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down state and federal laws that impose a mandatory sentence of life without parole on juveniles convicted of murder.

By a 5-4 vote, the court said juveniles may still be sentenced to life without parole, but that to do so automatically, without allowing the judge or jury to consider the defendant's youth, whether he was the triggerman or an accomplice, and other factors, would violate the constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The court threw out the sentences given to two 14-year-old boys convicted of murder. One, Kuntrell Jackson, followed his friends into an Arkansas video store to rob it, and when his friend shot and killed the clerk, Jackson was convicted of aiding and abetting the murder and sentenced to life without parole. The other, Evan Miller, beat and killed a neighbor in Alabama after a night of drinking and drug use. Both boys were tried as adults, and then given the mandatory adult punishment of life without the possibility of parole.

'Children Are Different'

The court's decision built on two earlier decisions. In 2005, the court invalidated the death sentence for juveniles, and in 2010, it held that states could not impose life without parole sentences on juveniles convicted of nonhomicide crimes.

Writing for the court Monday, Justice Elena Kagan said those decisions recognized that "children are different" due to their "immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences." Indeed, she said, "it is the odd legal rule that does not have some form of exception for children."

The court's precedents, she observed, established the principle that juvenile offenders cannot be sentenced "as though they were not children," and a mandatory life without parole sentence, imposed on anyone convicted of certain crimes without regard to their age, violated that principle. "By making youth (and all that accompanies it) irrelevant to imposition of the harshest prison sentence, such a scheme poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment," Kagan wrote.

The court noted that, after taking into consideration all the relevant facts, including the offender's age, a judge or jury could still sentence the juvenile to life without parole. But given children's diminished culpability and their capacity to change, Kagan wrote, "we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon."

The ruling affects 28 states and the federal government, which impose mandatory life without parole terms on juveniles convicted of murder.

Bryan Stevenson, who represented the two 14-year-olds in this case, says the decision gives thousands of children in prison new hope. Estimates are that at least 2,000 people currently serving life terms for homicides committed when they were juveniles will now be eligible for resentencing.

"The United States is the only country in the world that imposes death-in-prison sentences on children," he says. "And I continue to believe to say to young kids, 13- and 14-year-olds, or any juvenile, that you're fit only to die in prison is cruel."

Dissenting Opinions

"There's going to be a deluge of legislation and litigation and re-sentencing now that's been opened today by the court, and most victims' families don't even know that this has happened," predicts Jennifer Bishop Jenkins, who leads the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers.

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Steven Breyer and Sonya Sotomayor joined the majority opinion. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito all filed their own dissents, each of which was joined by Justice Scalia.

Justice Alito announced his dissent orally from the bench, a rare move used to signal a justice's particular disapproval of a decision. Alito took issue with the majority's use of the word "children" throughout its opinion, and in his opinion, he referred to the defendants only as "murderers." From the bench, he disparaged the justices in the majority for basing their decision on their own personal preference, and said their opinion ignores reality. "The decision in this case is based on a vision of a different society, an elite vision of a more evolved, more mature society," he said, mocking the majority's invocation of the "evolving standards of decency" that undergird the Eighth Amendment.

"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," he said, adding that the Supreme Court "has no license to impose our vision of the future on 300 million of our fellow citizens."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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