SCOTUS: No mandatory life sentences for minors

posted at 8:41 am on June 26, 2012 by Jazz Shaw

I’ll have to confess that when I read he headline I was prepared for the worst.

Supreme Court: No Mandatory Life Without Parole For Juveniles

From the Paper of Record:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that it is unconstitutional for states to require juveniles convicted of murder to be sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

The 5-4 decision is in line with others the court has made, including ruling out the death penalty for juveniles and life without parole for young people whose crimes did not involve killing. Monday’s decision left open the possibility that judges could sentence juveniles to life without parole in individual cases of murder, but said state laws cannot automatically impose such a sentence.

My first problem with some of the headlines running around in this case was the mistaken perception that the court was saying that those falling under some arbitrarily summoned chronological age could not be sentenced to life behind bars. This was reinforced by a portion of the majority decision written by Justice Kagan.

Mandatory life without parolefor a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features—among them, immaturity,impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. 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. It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participationin the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him. Indeed, it ignores that he might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense if notfor incompetencies associated with youth—for example, his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors(including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys.

Most of this I find non-applicable. But, as Doug Mataconis points out from the linked article, that’s not really the determining factor.

It’s worth noting that the Court did not say today that a juvenile can never be sentenced to life without parole, only that they cannot be subjected to a mandatory sentencing scheme that requires a sentence of life without parole and instead must be given the opportunity to have their sentence determined by a judge or jury (depending on how a particular state handles sentencing). That means that there may yet be a case where a juvenile commits a crime horrible enough that the sentencing authority determines that life without parole is an appropriate sentence.

That was most of my objection during my initial reaction to the news. Certainly there are some cases where the very young should not be held to the same standards of an older, hardened criminal. And we also will, upon occasion, run across those who are severely impaired who get hold of a weapon. But I have seen too many cases where a “minor” has been involved in gang violence or similar activities since their early teens and “aged” to be true adult criminals before their 18th birthday. And in such cases, life without parole – or even the death penalty – may still be appropriate.

But the breaking point here comes with these “mandatory” punishments. Every case is unique. The judge and the jury need to be able to weigh all the circumstances and the background before setting sentence. And that doesn’t just mean that the young should always get a pass. The circumstances may dictate that a youthful offender has already established a record worthy of a maximum penalty.

All in all, this seems to be a fairly balanced decision. And it may set a path for some states to take off the kid gloves where appropriate while leaving room for lenience when deserved.


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sp. “innocence”

Libraritarian on June 26, 2012 at 8:46 AM

A big reason for the explosion in juvenile sentences was because gangs were using minors as hitmen back in the ‘90s.

Sekhmet on June 26, 2012 at 8:46 AM

Bishop!

Libraritarian on June 26, 2012 at 8:46 AM

Thanks for the report on this. It sounds a lot better than my first impression yesterday. On balance, sounds reasonable.

jwolf on June 26, 2012 at 8:47 AM

A big reason for the explosion in juvenile sentences was because gangs were using minors as hitmen back in the ‘90s.

Sekhmet on June 26, 2012 at 8:46 AM

And IIRC this was done deliberately in order to skirt the law at that time, at least as much as that could be done.

jwolf on June 26, 2012 at 8:48 AM

I don’t like mandatory sentencing — as Jazz says, every case is unique and should be considered on its unique facts — but it is important to note that mandatory sentencing gathered strength in various state legislatures because our court systems have become so corrupt one simply cannot count on justice being served unless the (liberal) judge’s hand is forced.

Rational Thought on June 26, 2012 at 8:50 AM

Sekhmet on June 26, 2012 at 8:46 AM

True. And another reason may have been that enough of these “choirboys” received light sentences relative to the crime they committed, with the reaction being that if the judges couldn’t or wouldn’t use their discretion to give more severe sentences, they would have to have their hands forces by mandatory sentencing.

Libraritarian on June 26, 2012 at 8:51 AM

Yeah, I actually agree with the libs on this one, too.

WannabeAnglican on June 26, 2012 at 8:51 AM

Rational Thought on June 26, 2012 at 8:50 AM

… or what you said.

Libraritarian on June 26, 2012 at 8:52 AM

“But, as Doug Mataconis points out from the linked article, that’s not really the determining factor.”

I see Hotair is back to quoting left wing Palin haters.

Stay classy Jazz

Eph on June 26, 2012 at 9:02 AM

Offer parole at the age of 80—problem solved.

Rovin on June 26, 2012 at 9:03 AM

I have no issue with this decision.

jake-the-goose on June 26, 2012 at 9:09 AM

I can’t disagree with this. How can you sentence a minor, who is not entitled to all civil rights to life without parole?

wildcat72 on June 26, 2012 at 9:16 AM

I am always fine with good-behavior parole at retirement age or when 30 years were served, whichever of the two comes later. If a rapist can rape someone at 65 after having spent three decades in prison serving as everyone’s byotch, the only federal facility the guy should be in is a Smithsonian’s exhibition.

Archivarix on June 26, 2012 at 9:16 AM

“No life sentence without parole”

Easy fix.

“I hereby sentence you to 500 years imprisonment. You will be eligible for parole after serving 25% of your sentence. Take him away.”

evilned on June 26, 2012 at 9:20 AM

Murdering a family of 4? Oh that’s just boys being boys…

jeffn21 on June 26, 2012 at 9:22 AM

…I feel dirty!…I have to agree with the liberal judges on this one so I don’t feel right…now, I have to take a shower, after having taken one an hour ago.

KOOLAID2 on June 26, 2012 at 9:24 AM

The dissent is spot on in this case.

Kyle_Reese on June 26, 2012 at 9:32 AM

In a sense
innocence
in essence
is nonsense.
(from Shards at Smashwords.com)

Hermeticus on June 26, 2012 at 9:55 AM

A big reason for the explosion in juvenile sentences was because gangs were using minors as hitmen back in the ‘90s.

Sekhmet on June 26, 2012 at 8:46 AM

Yep. They’re almost perfect for the task: willing to do ANYTHING to prove themselves, mentally vulnerable to suggestion…and when the cops nab them they can easily get a confession because they’re scared little kids.

Rational Thought on June 26, 2012 at 8:50 AM

+1. Exactly. I don’t laws that hamstring a judge’s ability to decide sentencing…but our society has become such a bunch of lily-livered wusses that such laws do have merit. I’m kinda torn on this decision, truth be told.

Easy fix.

“I hereby sentence you to 500 years imprisonment. You will be eligible for parole after serving 25% of your sentence. Take him away.”

evilned on June 26, 2012 at 9:20 AM

*evil grin* I like the way you think!

MelonCollie on June 26, 2012 at 10:06 AM

jeffn21 on June 26, 2012 at 9:22 AM

The ruling doesn’t preclude life without parole, it just doesn’t mandate it for the 14 yr old involved in a murder after being bullied into going to rob a convenience store by his gang member cousin. Punishment is due, but come on. Not every minor who commits murder has killed a family of four in cold blood.

pannw on June 26, 2012 at 10:09 AM

And it may set a path for some states to take off the kid gloves where appropriate while leaving room for lenience when deserved.

Too bad this reasoning doesn’t apply to public schools with their idiotic “no tolerance” policies that get innocent kids suspended for making pencil drawings of guns or pointing with their fingers and saying “bang”.

SKYFOX on June 26, 2012 at 10:11 AM

Tough one, I don’t know. Did they make a distinction of what constitutes a “juvenile”? There are 17 year olds serving in the military, in fact there was a 17 year old kid who passed SEAL training a few years back.

Seems like a kid could go on a gang rampage, kill all sorts of people, and get basically nothing as a sentence.

Bishop on June 26, 2012 at 10:35 AM

Yeah, that was yesterday “Jazz”.

This is one of the premier conservative blogs. If you’re going to show up a day late with commentary, rest assured that the entire conservative blogosphere has already dealt with your banal slant in some fashion or another.

IronDioPriest on June 26, 2012 at 10:45 AM

I think this was a good call. They leaned on the side of liberty.

MoreLiberty on June 26, 2012 at 10:45 AM

How is 17 old enough to get the death penalty and too young to have consensual sex?

libfreeordie on June 26, 2012 at 10:52 AM

There are cases already on the books of juveniles committing crimes worthy of Hannibal Lector. Yeah, no life without parole, but they’ll have to be regarded as criminally insane and incarcerated under different rules.

stillings on June 26, 2012 at 10:52 AM

How is 17 old enough to get the death penalty and too young to have consensual sex?

libfreeordie on June 26, 2012 at 10:52 AM

Because our age-of-consent is badly in need of revision so that an 18 y/o isn’t in danger of being busted as a pedophile for banging an 17 y/o partner.

MelonCollie on June 26, 2012 at 11:05 AM

Because our age-of-consent is badly in need of revision so that an 18 y/o isn’t in danger of being busted as a pedophile for banging an 17 y/o partner.

MelonCollie on June 26, 2012 at 11:05 AM

We have the oddest agreements….

libfreeordie on June 26, 2012 at 11:36 AM

This is a truly disgusting ruling because the liberal mush heads of the court based it on the 8th Amendment’s prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment”, which such sentencing clearly is not. Hardly “unusual” when 28 state legislatures think it appropriate in certain cases and hardly “cruel” when the framers clearly had in mind some of the horrible torture punishments of the past.

This sentencing judgement call clearly belongs to the states and not to liberal Supreme Court justices. As Alito points out, the majority decision shows that Eighth Amendment cases are “no longer tied to any objective indicia of society’s standards”. As Alito further noted, 17-year-olds committed an average of 424 murders and non-negligent homicides per year between 2002 and 2010, some extremely cruel & heinous. I think that in the opinion of most people some of these 17 year old cruelty-loving psychopathic killers should be put down like the deviant animals they are.

But now the Constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment has come to mean any punishment that, in the abstract, jars the very sensitive and tender feelings of the liberal mush heads on the Court. Disgusting.

Chessplayer on June 26, 2012 at 12:06 PM

How is 17 old enough to get the death penalty and too young to have consensual sex?

libfreeordie on June 26, 2012 at 10:52 AM |

Most states meh at 17 years olds having sex.. And most 17 year olds have a conscience and aren’t a sociopath/psychopath..but those said same 17 year olds can’t see past their hormones to see the consequences of sexual activity…

Face it, consent laws aren’t about the 17 years old and how responsible they are.. the are about the degenerate adults who would take advantage of the 17 year old..

And this law again is the court overreaching from the bench.. Penalties are decided by state legislature..

melle1228 on June 26, 2012 at 12:15 PM

Why on earth is a mandatory sentence for a 17 year old legally any different then an 18 year old? This isn’t petty theft or vandalism that a youth might outgrow, this is intentionally taking the life of an innocent person…

And if you commit 1st degree murder, the punishment should be mandatory execution.

18-1 on June 26, 2012 at 12:40 PM

Honestly, between me and thee. I agree. I’ve never liked mandatory minimums. The reason is that each case, each offender, and the circumstances in each are always unique. That and I have long believed the court punishment is part of the process. The next step is for Society to forgive, if not forget the offense.

Now before you claim I’m a bleeding heart. Listen. Twenty years ago, bar fights if they included bottles could be prosecuted as assault with a deadly weapon, a Felony. Today, those same people can’t work in many fields except manual labor. Then we minimize the number of Manual Labor jobs, by prohibiting them from working at Docks, Ports, or other shipping facilities where “security” is an issue. By Federal Law no less.

The individual made a mistake, was punished, and now can’t get a job, can’t do anything but return to crime. They are responsible for their actions. We are responsible for OUR actions too. We did not forgive them, and will never do so. Minor Drug offenders end up in prison for long mandatory sentences.

Snake307 on June 26, 2012 at 1:10 PM

The sentence was appropriate for the nature of these crimes. Minor or not, murdering people in cold blood deserve the maximum punishment.

jawkneemusic on June 26, 2012 at 1:53 PM

This ‘decision’ is complete crap.

Look at Clown Kagen’s reasoning. SHE will decide WHO laws should apply to, and who it shall not apply to.

Where in the constitution does it say the UNEQUAL implementation of ANY law is acceptable?

Freddy on June 26, 2012 at 2:32 PM

For a juvenile to even be tried as an adult, it requires an exceptional crime. Therefore, the courts should have already taken the offender’s youth into consideration before trying the juvenile as an adult.

The decision essentially ignores all that and says, “no mandatory life sentence without parole.” Which means you can apply a life sentence without parole under the right circumstances — which have already been considered when it was decided to try the juvenile as an adult.

Sorry, but the reasoning on this one is incoherent. It’s not as bad as it seemed at first report, but it still amounts to seriously shoddy thinking. The restriction on cruel and unusual punishment really does not apply in this case. There is nothing about the punishment that is cruel or unusual. They just don’t like that trying a juvenile as an adult leads to … adult punishments for the juvenile.

tom on June 26, 2012 at 2:59 PM

How is 17 old enough to get the death penalty and too young to have consensual sex?

libfreeordie on June 26, 2012 at 10:52 AM

If you’re old enough to kill, you’re old enough to get the death penalty.

Your rhetorical question is frankly stupid.

tom on June 26, 2012 at 3:03 PM