Tuesday is a big day for juvenile justice in this country. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments both challenging and defending the constitutionality of sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole for cases of homicide.
The high court will examine the cases of two men convicted of homicide for two separate killings, in Arkansas and Alabama. Both men were 14 years old at the time of the incidents, and they are represented by the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala. The group represents indigent defendants, including juveniles, and defendants its lawyers feel have faced unjust treatment or racial bias.
The initiative is arguing that life without the possibility of parole for minors — or “death in prison” — amounts to the sort of “cruel and unusual” punishment outlawed by the Constitution.
Arguments challenging the constitutionality of such sentences will touch on questions of child development and brain science, and the ability of youths to transform and succeed in efforts at rehabilitation.
The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, based in Georgia, has posted an in-depth story that includes details about the killings the two youths committed with other youths, the arguments put forth by the Equal Justice Initiative and the various directions the court’s ruling could eventually take. Currently, the story notes, there are about 2,570 convicts serving life without parole sentences they received as minors. Seven states bar such sentences.
The story also notes that the National District Attorneys Association and the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers are filing briefs supporting Alabama and Arkansas’ arguments in favor of allowing this sentencing option. The crime victims’ group argues that more than half the minors who’ve been sentenced to life without parole were 17 years old at the time of their crimes, “hardly children.”
A story in Education Week also includes details about the two 14-year-olds’ whose cases are at the core of the Equal Justice Initiative’s challenge. The piece notes that the Arkansas boy participated in a robbery with other boys, but was not the youth who shot and killed a store clerk with a shotgun. The trial judge, however, was barred from considering to what degree the 14-year-old participated in the killing of the clerk.
Because of Arkansas’ mandatory sentencing policy for accomplices to murder, the judge had to impose life without parole on the teen. The Equal Justice Initiative is challenging the constitutionality of applying this policy to a 14-year-old offender.
Both Alabama and Arkansas argued against the Supreme Court taking up the cases, but the high court has waded into questions of appropriate juvenile punishment before — and issued historic decisions.
In 2005, the court ruled against the death penalty for offenders who committed crimes before they were 18. And in 2010, the court ruled that life-without-parole sentencing for non-homicides was unconstitutional.
"Developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in that 2010 ruling.
Human Rights Watch, among other international rights groups, is an ardent opponent of sentencing of juveniles to life without parole and has produced various reports on the phenomenon. For an interesting backgrounder on the history of juvenile sentencing, PBS produced a timeline spanning more than a century as part of a project on crime and punishment.
This month, the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project produced the results of a national survey of juvenile lifers. The survey found that most juvenile lifers experienced violence growing up, with nearly half reporting physical abuse and 84 percent reporting that they had been suspended or expelled as students. Black juvenile lifers, the survey found, were far more likely to get life than white offenders who killed.