In addition to the Supreme Court’s decision on the various provisions of Arizona’s odious immigration law, and the courts predictable rejection of the State of Montana’s challenge to Citizen’s United, there was a third dramatic ruling on Monday: SCOTUS’s much-awaited decision about whether or not it is Constitutional to sentence kids under the age of 18 to life in prison without (the possibility of) parole—LWOP.
In a 5-4 decision (Thank you, Anthony Kennedy), the justices did not toss out juvenile LWOP sentences altogether—as many of us hoped that they they would. But they took a very significant step in that direction. In the ruling written by Justice Elena Kagen, the majority said that a mandatory sentence of life without parole for murder, which is the law in 29 states, violates the 8th Amendment; it is cruel and unusual.
The operative word here, however, is “mandatory.” Judges can still sentence a kid for life. But the law can’t force it. After having reviewed all the mitigating circumstances, a judge may impose LWOP on a kid who has committed a murder, but only after considering the young person’s individual life, background, mental and emotional condition, and possibility for change.
Most importantly, this decision was built on the same reasoning used in an earlier Supreme Court ruling ( Graham v. Florida), which held that: Kids are different than adults. They are more malleable. Their brains are still developing.
There is the hope, of course, that eventually the court will extend its understanding of difference to one day strike down all of Juvie LWOP.
But for now, the New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv explains the matter this way;
Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that judges and juries must be able to consider the “mitigating qualities of youth,” such as “immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks,” as well as the “home environment that surrounds [the juvenile offender]—and from which he cannot usually extricate himself—no matter how brutal or dysfunctional.”
In one of the cases considered by the Court, the defendant had been physically abused by his alcoholic parents, had attempted suicide four times, and was drunk and high the night of the murder. In the other, the defendant, Kuntrell Jackson, was given the mandatory sentence under the felony-murder doctrine for participating in a video-store robbery. His older friend shot the video clerk in the face while Jackson watched. At his trial, it was never clear whether Jackson had shouted, shortly before the murder, “We ain’t playin’” or “I thought you all was playin.’”
The Court extended the logic underlying two earlier cases, Roper v. Simmons, which abolished the death penalty for juveniles, and Graham v. Florida, which outlawed life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who have committed any crime except murder. In this case, unlike the other two, the use of the punishment, while cruel, may not be unusual—roughly two thousand five hundred inmates were sentenced to life-without-parole for crimes they committed before their eighteenth birthday—an issue that Chief Justice Roberts emphasized in his dissent. He argued that the majority opinion suggested that legislatures were “ignorant of its own laws.”
But the combination of laws that allow juveniles to be transferred into adult court—in many states, prosecutors have the sole authority to decide when to bypass the juvenile justice system—and mandatory-sentencing schemes often result in “mismatches,” as Kagan put it, between the severity of the penalty and the offender’s culpability. “Under these schemes, every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other—the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one.”
Emily Bazelon, writing for Slate, has some good thoughts and insights as well:
..I see this as a fairly small but still significant step in expanding the definition of cruel and unusual punishment—the Eighth Amendment standard for declaring a sentence off limits. It’s incremental because two years ago, the court ruled unconstitutional mandatory LWOP for teenagers who commit crimes other than murder. Today, the court simply extended the reasoning of that ruling, Graham v. Florida, to teenage killers. Not surprising, right? Especially since the whole idea behind Graham was that minors are less culpable than adults in part because their brains aren’t fully developed. Once again today, the court relied on the research of Laurence Steinberg at Temple University, whose studies of the adolescent brain have been crucial to this line of cases. Steinberg has found that teenagers tend to have less impulse control and more proclivity for risk, and as Kagan says, these findings mean the court’s decisions rest “not only on common sense—on ‘what any parent knows’—but on science and social science as well.”