In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) today ruled that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder are unconstitutional. Justice Elena Kegan wrote the majority opinion, which focused on the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Writing at the SCOTUSblog, Tejinder Singh elaborates on the decision:
The Court’s opinion brings together two strands of precedent to hold that a mandatory life-without-parole sentence for juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment. The first strand holds that the Eighth Amendment categorically prohibits punishments that enact a mismatch between the culpability of a class of offenders and the severity of the penalty. Citing, among cases, Roper and Graham, the Court explains that juveniles have always been regarded as less culpable because the distinctive attributes of youth diminish the penological justifications for imposing the harshest penalties on juvenile offenders, even when they commit severe crimes. The second line of precedent holds that life without parole shares key characteristics with the death penalty, and thus raises similar Eighth Amendment concerns, most notably that defendants are entitled to individualized consideration when facing such a severe sanction.
Weaving these two lines of precedent together, the Court held that mandatory life without parole violates the Eighth Amendment. Such sentencing regimes, the court explained, “preclude a sentence from taking account of an offender’s age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it,” including “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” as well as the juvenile’s “family and home environment,” and the circumstances of the offense, including “the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him.” By eliding these key factors, mandatory life without parole “poses too great a risk of disproportionate punishment.”
To learn more about this issue, check out:
- CNN: Justices rule for underage killers sentenced to life without parole
- NPR: Life Sentences Without Parole For Juveniles is Unconstitutional, High Court Rules
- ABC News: Court Nixes Life Without Parole for Juveniles
- The Crime Report: High Court Bars Mandatory Life-Without-Parole for Teen Murderers
- Equal Justice Initiative: U.S. Supreme Court Bans Mandatory Life-Without-Parole Sentences for Children Convicted of Homicide
- A Legal View: Why Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences are a Mistake
- Looking at the Lives of Teens Serving Life Without Parole
3:30 pm update: Over at iWatch News, Susan Ferris has a terrific and in-depth piece on the SCOTUS ruling.
June 27, 2012 update: The New York Times looks at what the SCOTUS ruling means for the juvenile justice system and the Associated Press explains that over 2,000 inmates now have a chance for parole.
Liz Wu is a Digital Accounts Manager at Prichard Communications, where she oversees digital outreach for Reclaiming Futures and edits Reclaiming Futures Every Day. Before joining the Prichard team, Liz established the West Coast communications presence for the New America Foundation, where she managed all media relations, event planning and social media outreach for their 6 domestic policy programs. Liz received a B.A. in both Peace and Conflict Studies and German from the University of California at Berkeley. She tweets from @LizSF.
*Photo at top by Flickr user OZinOH
Updated: February 08 2018