Monday, June 25, 2012

U.S. Supreme Court axes mandatory life sentences for juveniles

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U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court

With all the hubbub over today’s U.S. Supreme Court rulings on such matters as the constitutionality of the healthcare reform law (still pending), Arizona’s draconian anti-immigration law (mostly struck down) and a revisit to Citizens United (dismissed outright), a few lower-profile decisions have gone by relatively unnoticed. One of them was the welcome (albeit belated) abolition of mandatory life sentences for juveniles, including those convicted of murder:

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the 5-4 majority, said, "By requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes, the mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment."

The ruling that such sentences violate the Eighth Amendment continues the juvenile justice reform movement's streak of victories at the high court over the last decade. In 2005, the justices eliminated the death penalty for minors. In 2010, the court struck down life-without-parole sentences for all juveniles convicted of non-homicide offenses. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion both times, joined by the court's four-justice liberal bloc.


Kagan made it clear that her opinion did not affect those juvenile homicide offenders who had been sentenced to life without parole in states where it was not mandatory. Monday's opinion, she wrote, strikes down only those sentencing regimes that prevent a jury from considering a juvenile's "chronological age and its hallmark features -- among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences," as well as "the family and home environment that surrounds him -- and from which he cannot usually extricate himself -- no matter how brutal or dysfunctional."

This is yet another case of a ruling that arguably shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. Now, keep in mind that all this does is remove mandatory life sentences; youthful criminals can still be locked up for life if the court decides it, but only after considering every possible variable that went into their crime. No murderer deserves pity, but they also don’t deserve to have their entire lives destroyed before they’ve even had the chance to begin living as a result of a child’s error of judgment, no matter how grave. This ruling serves only to give them a chance to plead their case, not to guarantee that young criminals will be let off the hook.

And yet, wouldn’t you know that’s exactly how the usual cranks are spinning it:

Equal parts predictable and dishonest. It’s hard to say whether Fitton is lying or just linguistically challenged; either way, perhaps he would like to explain how merely repealing a law that demands the automatic life-sentencing of young criminals is akin to “guarantee[ing]” that they’ll walk free, particularly when the justices explicitly state that such decisions will be left entirely up to the courts?

(via @radleybalko)