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Crime & Justice

The Supreme Court rules juvenile offenders should have a chance at parole

Evan Miller (in the white shirt) was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he committed when he was 14.
Evan Miller (in the white shirt) was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he committed when he was 14.
Courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative

The US Supreme Court Monday, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that almost all people convicted of crimes as juveniles should be allowed a chance at parole. California is among the 29 states that currently sentence at least some juveniles convicted of murder to life in prison with no possibility of getting out. In some states, it's the only possible sentence for murder crimes. 

In her opinion for the court, Justice Elena Kagan writes that the mandatory nature of these sentencing laws "runs afoul of our cases’ requirement of individualized sentencing for defendants facing the most serious penalties." She also points to scientific research showing that children's brains are not fully formed, meaning those convicted of crimes as children have less culpability and a greater "capacity for change" than adults. 

Kagan writes that while not taking life without parole for juveniles completely off the table, Monday's ruling will make it so that a judge always has the option to give a juvenile offender a lighter sentence (like life with the chance of parole). Moreover, she writes, "we think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon." 

Going forward, when judges consider sentences for children convicted of murder, they'll have to "take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime inprison."

The California legislature has debated juvenile life without parole several times. For the past few years, State Senator Leland Yee, a psychiatrist, has urged senators to pass a bill that would grant the chance of parole to all juvenile offenders. The bill has failed repeatedly. There are about 300 inmates in California's state correctional system who were sentenced to life without parole as children. 

Full opinion here