Photo by Richard Johnstone via Flickr Creative Commons
The corridor of a juvenile detention center.
Whew! Like a pitcher striking out batter after batter, the Supreme Court is ending its term with a lineup of rulings.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4, with Justice Anthony Kennedy siding with the moderates, that states cannot require mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote, in the majority opinion, that allowing mandatory life sentence without parole for juveniles violated the 8th Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Instead, citing previous decisions by the court, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that defendant’s age and circumstances have to be taken into account because of the defendents' "lack of maturity." The ruling still allows juveniles to be sentenced to life without parole, but it cannot be done automatically.
Jody Armour, professor of law at USC Law School, says the ruling doesn’t come as much of a surprise. He noted that in 2005 the court abolished the death penalty in juvenile cases and in 2010 mandatory life without parole was taken off the table for all but murder cases in juvenile court.
“What [the ruling] is going to mean is that their attorney is going to get an opportunity to stand in front of a judge and say, ‘Your honor, this is not a case that deserves the most corrosive contempt that society can direct toward a defendant,’” Armour says.
There are currently around 2,000 inmates who are serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, 300 of those are from California.
“It’s not clear what its retroactive effect is going to be but what we do know is that it doesn’t automatically guarantee any release from a sentence,” said Armour. “All it guarantees, if it is extended backwards in time, is that that juvenile will have an individualized judgement of his culpability.”
Seven years ago, the court banned the death penalty for juvenile murders. Should juveniles be treated differently by the courts?
Jody Armour, professor of law, USC Law School; author, "Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America"