In a significant but highly under-reported decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the U.S. Constitution does not allow states to mandate that courts sentence juveniles convicted of murder to a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.
Twenty-nine states, including Florida, have such a law on their books.
The case, Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, was argued before the nation’s highest court by Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).
“This is an important win for children,” Stevenson said in a story posted on the EJI website.
“The court took a significant step forward by recognizing the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that don’t allow ‘sentencers’ to consider the unique status of children and their potential for change,” said Stevenson, who is also on the law faculty of New York University School of Law.
“The court has recognized that children need additional attention and protection in the criminal justice system.”
The NAACP hailed the 5-4 decision handed down Monday as “a big step forward for the American justice system.”
“When it comes to juveniles, life sentences without possibility of parole indeed constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Judicial discretion is extremely important in these cases, but the NAACP will continue to fight until the sentences are banned outright,” NAACP president and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement.
Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the opinion for the majority, said according to an Associated Press report that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’”
Kagan pointed to children’s diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change, adding, “We think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined Kagan to form the majority.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.
“Neither the text of the Constitution or our precedent prohibits legislatures from requiring that juvenile murderers be sentenced to life without parole,” Roberts said.
The ruling requires the lower courts to hold new sentencing hearings in which judges must consider children’s individual characters and life circumstances, including age, as well as the circumstances of the crime.
Today’s ruling affects hundreds of individuals whose sentences did not take their age or other mitigating factors into account. They include Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, in whose names Stevenson and the EJI brought the lawsuit.
They were sentenced to life in prison without parole at 14 and are now entitled to new sentencing hearings.
But the ruling also leaves open the possibility that judges could sentence juveniles to life without parole in individual cases of murder —though not automatically.
The Equal Justice Institute, in two previous cases, had convinced the court to rule against the death sentence for juveniles and against life without parole in non-homicide cases.
EJI research showed that all of the 73 children aged 13 and 14 sent to prison without the possibility of parole are blacks and Latinos. Seven were
involved in incidents in which no one was killed. They include a 14-year-old Latino boy in California in a case in which no one was injured.
According to the NAACP, “racial disparities remain extremely pronounced in the Juvenile Justice system. African American children are 10 times more likely than their white peers to be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.”
*Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson