Children are not adults. That’s the basic message the U.S. Supreme Court sent Monday with a 5-4 decision declaring that mandatory life-without-possibility-of-parole sentences for juveniles represent cruel and unusual punishment.
Children’s vulnerability to family and social pressure — and scientific evidence supporting children’s capacity to change — figured prominently in the court’s ruling that such sentencing violates the Eighth Amendment’s protections.
The justices issued the finding after reviewing a challenge by two prisoners in Alabama and Arkansas who were sentenced to life without parole sentences for killings they committed or participated in when they were 14-years-old.
“Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features — among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” the decision said. “It 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.”
The ruling, delivered by Justice Elena Kagan, also said that such mandated sentencing “neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him.”
The court’s finding will likely have a deep impact as it ripples through states where an estimated 2,500 inmates are doing mandatory life-until-death sentences for killings they committed as minors.
The high court did not categorically ban juvenile life sentences, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery, Ala.-based group that represented the two prisoners in Alabama an Arkansas.
However, the group said, “today’s decision requires the lower courts to conduct new sentencing hearings where judges will have to consider children’s individual characters and life circumstances, including age, as well as the circumstances of the crime.”
The Equal Justice Initiative said the ruling will affect 29 states with statutes that allow for juveniles to receive life without the possibility of parole.
Equal Justice Initiative Executive Director Bryan Stevenson, who argued the challenge before the high court, said, “This is an important win for children. 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.”
As the Supreme Court decision notes, over the years, a number of states have adopted mandates or prosecutorial options to try juveniles as adults for some crimes, while also approving mandatory sentencing laws for certain crimes.
In both Alabama and Arkansas, the justices found in Monday’s decision, this trend has stripped juries and judges of discretion in cases where the accused is younger than 18.
“State law mandated that each juvenile die in prison even if a judge or jury would have thought that his youth and its attendant characteristics, along with the nature of his crime, made a lesser sentence (for example, life with the possibility of parole) more appropriate,” Kagan wrote. “Such a scheme prevents those meting out punishment from considering a juvenile’s ‘lessened culpability’ and greater ‘capacity for change’… ”
In Arkansas, Kuntrell Jackson, one of the two challengers to such sentences, was 14 when he and two older boys tried to rob a store in 1999.
Jackson said he learned that one of the older boys had a sawed-off shotgun while they were en route to the store. Jackson initially stayed outside the store, but went inside while the boy with the gun was demanding money from the clerk, Laurie Troup, and then shot her dead. Prosecutors exercised an option in Arkansas to try juveniles as adults and tried Jackson for capital felony murder, based on an aiding-and-abetting theory, and aggravated robbery.
Citing Jackson’s prior arrests for shoplifting and car theft, Arkansas appeals courts declined to transfer the minor’s case to juvenile court. Ultimately, “there’s only one possible punishment,” an Arkansas judge later wrote after his conviction, which required life without parole.
Kagan and other justices who ruled with her said that “age could well have affected his calculation of the risk” posed by the boy carrying the gun “as well as his willingness to walk away at that point.” Compared to an adult murderer, the court said, a juvenile who didn’t commit a killing or intend to kill “has a twice diminished moral culpability.”
The court also said Jackson’s family life was one of “immersion in violence.”
“At the least, “the court said, “a sentencer should look at such facts before depriving a 14-year-old of any prospect of release from prison.”
In the Alabama case, defendant Evan Miller was 14 when he and another boy drank alcohol and smoked marijuana with Cole Cannon, 52, who had gone to Miller’s home to engage in a drug deal with Miller’s mother and then returned to his home with the boys.
When the boys tried to steal money from Cannon after he passed out, Cannon woke up and grabbed Miller by throat. Miller grabbed a baseball bat and beat Cannon repeatedly. The boys returned after fleeing and set Cannon’s home on fire. He died of his injuries and smoke inhalation.
Prosecutors, the justices noted, tried Miller as an adult, a decision supported by courts that cited his “mental maturity” and previous truancy and “criminal mischief.” His conviction of murder in the course of arson required a mandatory life sentence with no parole.
“No one can doubt” that Miller and the other boy “committed a vicious murder,” the Supreme Court’s decision said. “But they did it when high on drugs and alcohol consumed with the adult victim. And if ever a pathological background might have contributed to a 14-year-old’s commission of a crime, it is here.”
“Miller’s stepfather physically abused him,” the ruling said, “his alcoholic and drug-addicted mother neglected him; he had been in and out of foster care as a result; and he had tried to kill himself four times, the first when he should have been in kindergarten.”
In reaching their decision Monday, justices drew heavily from two previous Supreme Court rulings on punishment of juveniles. Based on children’s distinct differences from adults, the court had already prohibited the death penalty for minors as well as life without parole for crimes that are not homicides.
Kagan was joined in Monday’s ruling by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy and Sonia Sotomayor.
In a dissent, Chief Justice John G. Roberts echoed Alabama and Arkansas’ arguments that because mandatory life-without-possibility-of-parole sentences are widely practiced, at the request of legislatures, the punishment cannot be found unconstitutional.
Roberts noted that the justices accept that more than 2,000 of the prisoners who were given these sentences as minors were given them because it was required by state legislatures. When determining if a punishment is cruel and unusual, the Supreme Court typically begins, he wrote, with “objective indicia of society’s standards, as expressed in the legislative enactments and state practice.”
“Put simply,” Roberts said, “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. That reality should preclude finding that mandatory life imprisonment for juvenile killers violates the 8th Amendment.”
“Determining the appropriate sentence for a teenager convicted of murder presents grave and challenging questions of morality and social policy,” Robert said. “Our role, however, is to apply the law, not to answer such questions.”