A set of companion cases helped solidify the slow constitutional turn away from excessively punitive juvenile sentences. In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court held that the “Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.”
Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson, named plaintiffs in the challenges, were each convicted of capital murder, which means a death in the commission of a separate felony. At the time of the relevant offenses, they were each fourteen years old and neither committed his offense alone. In Miller’s case, he and another boy beat and robbed a neighbor, who died after they lit his house on fire; in Jackson’s case, he and two others robbed a video store, and one of the others shot and killed the store clerk. Both were convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life without parole, under sentencing regimes (in Alabama and Arkansas) that render such sentences mandatory, without consideration of the offender’s age or mitigating circumstances.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, which represented both Miller and Jackson before the Court, there presently are approximately seventy-nine individuals currently serving life-without-parole sentences for crimes they committed at age thirteen or fourteen. The Court further explains that approximately 2500 people are serving life without parole for crimes they committed before they were eighteen. These numbers are nothing short of a national criminal justice crisis.
As the Court considered the challenge it explained that juveniles have always been regarded as less legally culpable and therefore, under the Eighth Amendment, any punishment that enacts a mismatch between the culpability of the class of offenders (in this case juveniles) and the severity of the penalty is per se unconstitutional. Furthermore, since life without parole is akin to a death sentence, the Eighth Amendment requires defendants receive individualized consideration before facing such a severe sanction.
The Court’s re-affirmation of the fundamental notions of fairness that drive criminal constitutional law was refreshing, especially after such a highly politicized term. When our laws write off juveniles who commit crimes, and especially those who commit serious crimes, those laws say more about our cultural values and belief that our kids are disposable than the character of the juvenile offender.
Photo from amandabhslater via flickr.
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