Supreme Court: No more mandatory life sentences for juveniles

Sentencing reform for juveniles convicted of serious crimes has been on the U.S. Supreme Court’s radar screen in unwavering fashion for the past several years.

The rationale for the Court’s rulings in a series of cases has focused on sentencing mitigation — or at least the opportunity for judges and juries to exercise discretion that is not barred by a mandated sentence — in cases where an offender committed a crime while under the age of 18.

In 2005, for instances, the Court held that a death penalty sentence is unconstitutional for juveniles. It then followed up that ruling in 2010 with an opinion in which it stated that a sentence of life without parole for a juvenile convicted of an offense not resulting in the death of another person is also constitutionally impermissible.

A continuing salvo for sentencing reform was sounded recently — on the last Monday in June — when the Court ruled that a mandatory life sentence for a juvenile convicted of any crime is a violation of the Constitution, specifically, the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

As with many of the Court’s recent rulings, the decision was close, with Justice Elena Kagan writing for a 5-4 majority.

The core of the Court’s opinion stressed that, where a defendant is a minor, a state can no longer confer a life sentence without the possibility of parole — for any crime.

The decision does not rule out the potential result that a juvenile might receive such a sentence in a homicide offense, but that outcome must now hinge on a judge or jury’s discretion and not the dictate of a mandatory sentence.

Source: Reuters, “Juvenile life sentences unconstitutional without parole,” Deanne Katz, June 25, 2012