|Opinion Date: June 25, 2012|
Judge: KaganAreas of Law: Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Juvenile Law
In each of two underlying cases, a 14-year-old was convicted of murder and sentenced to a mandatory term of life imprisonment without possibility of parole. The highest courts of Alabama and Arkansas upheld the sentences. The Supreme Court reversed. The Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders. Children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes. Their lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility lead to recklessness, impulsiveness, and heedless risk-taking. They are more vulnerable to negative influences and lack ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. A child’s actions are less likely to be evidence of irretrievable depravity. The mandatory penalty schemes at issue prevent the sentencing court from considering youth and from assessing whether the harshest term of imprisonment proportionately punishes a juvenile offender. Life-without-parole sentences share characteristics with death sentences, demanding individualized sentencing. The Court rejected the states’ argument that courts and prosecutors sufficiently consider a juvenile defendant’s age, background and the circumstances of his crime, when deciding whether to try him as an adult. The argument ignores that many states use mandatory transfer systems or lodge the decision in the hands of the prosecutors, rather than courts.