SCOTUS: No mandatory life sentences for minors

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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