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Mandatory life without parole for juveniles rejected by highest court

The U.S. Supreme Court this week rejected mandatory life without parole for juveniles. The ruling could mean hope for hundreds of Florida inmates sentenced as teenagers.

June 28, 2012

Hundreds of convicted murderers in Florida could get a chance to convince a judge that their terms should be reduced because they were juveniles when sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

The decision on Monday in two cases, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Arkansas, struck down laws in 28 states that give mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for minors convicted of homicide.

The 5-4 ruling, hailed by civil-rights activists, doesn’t mean Florida judges can’t still impose a life sentence on youths for first-degree murder – but they must now at least consider a defendant’s age.

Cruel and unusual punishment

In Monday’s decision, the Supreme Court said life without parole for juveniles violates the Constitution’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment. More than 2,000 people are in U.S. prisons under such a sentence.

The first case involved Kuntrell Jackson, who as a 14-year-old in 1999 participated in the robbery of an Arkansas video store in which a clerk was shot and killed. Jackson did not fire the weapon, but was convicted of felony murder for participating in an armed robbery that led to a death.

The second case involved Evan Miller, who in 2003 beat an Alabama man to death with a baseball bat. Miller, 14 at the time, had been in and out of foster care because of his tumultuous family life.

Both teenagers – who under an earlier Supreme Court ruling are not eligible for the death penalty – were charged as adults.

Troubled past not considered

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan noted that Miller “deserved severe punishment” but that the automatic life sentence did not allow a judge to consider his troubled past.

The law “prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him – and from which he cannot usually extricate himself – no matter how brutal or dysfunctional,” Kagan wrote.

Kagan said the decisions of the past decade have established the principle, or restored it, that “children are different” when it comes to criminal punishments.
“Our decisions rested not only on common sense – on what ‘any parent knows’ – but on science and social science as well,” she said. Juveniles are immature and are less deserving of the harshest punishments, she said.

Justice: Consider mitigating circumstances

In the case of young persons who take part in a homicide, “a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty,” Kagan said.

“We therefore hold that mandatory life without parole for those under age 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.”

Monday’s opinion follows the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision, based on a Jacksonville case that ruled that sentencing minors to life without the possibility of parole in non-homicide cases constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The teenager in that case, Terrance Graham, received probation for a robbery, but was later arrested for another armed robbery and sentenced to life in prison for violating probation.

New sentences for Florida inmates

In most states, the Graham ruling meant simply amending a life sentence to include the possibility of parole. But Florida lawmakers abolished parole in 1983, and with 115 defendants affected, the state was in a bind. Many of those 115 defendants have since been re-sentenced, and some have been released from custody.

Monday’s high court decision drew heavily on the reasoning in Graham.

Noted Mami-Dade Assistant Public Defender Stephen Harper after Monday’s ruling: “Kids are different. They are very impulsive. They follow other people. They don’t have a full understanding of the consequences of what they’re doing. Harper estimates that some 225 Florida convicts could get new sentences. “The court found it is important for a judge to consider all these factors.”

Third major juvenile ruling in decade

Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor sided with Kagan on Monday.

The decision in Miller v. Alabama was the third in a decade that puts new constitutional limits on punishments for young criminals. All have come by 5-4 votes, with Kennedy joining the court’s liberal bloc.

In 2005, the court abolished the death sentence for those under 18 who are convicted of murder. Then in 2010, the justices went further and said the life terms with no parole are unconstitutional for juveniles who commit crimes short of murder.

The recent pair of cases involving the 14-year olds asked the Supreme Court to abolish life prison terms for such young offenders. But the justices opted for a narrower ruling that targeted only mandatory laws.

Dissenters included Roberts, Thomas

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. dissented. “Put simply, if a 17-year old is convicted of deliberately murdering an innocent victim, it is not unusual for the murderer to receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole,” he said.

The fact that 28 states have such laws prove it is not unusual punishment.

“Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers. … But that is not our decision to make.” Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined in dissent.

Alito also delivered a stinging dissent in the courtroom. He spoke of the “incredibly brutal” crimes perpetrated by 17-year olds, and he accused the majority of exposing “members of society … to the risk that these convicted murderers, if released from custody, will murder again.”

Kagan replied in a footnote that the court’s decision did not tell judges to ignore the “most heinous” crimes, but rather to reserve the harshest punishment for just such crimes.

A report by David G. Savage from McClatchy Tribune and one by the Miami Herald were used in compiling this story.