High court ends mandatory life sentences for juveniles
The law cannot fly on automatic pilot, which is what state legislatures periodically try to do by taking certain decisions out of the hands of judges and juries, particularly with mandatory minimum sentences.
A particularly egregious example of bypassing judicial discretion are laws requiring youths younger than 18 convicted of murder to be sentenced to life without parole, regardless of the circumstances of the crimes or such factors as a brutally dysfunctional home life.
By a 5-to-4 decision the justices said such mandatory life sentences for juveniles under 18 violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Justice Elena Kagan writing for the majority said the Constitution "forbids requiring that all children convicted of homicide receive lifetime incarceration without possibility of parole, regardless of their age and age-related characteristics and the nature of their crimes."
According to figures provided to news organizations by the court, about 2,500 people are behind bars for life with no chance of parole for murders they committed, or for which they were present, before their 18th birthday. More than 2,000 of them are there because of mandates by the state legislature.
In one of the two cases before the court, Kentrell Jackson, 14, was with two older youths when they tried to rob an Arkansas video store in 1999. In the course of the robbery, one of the older youths killed a store clerk. Under the law that accomplices are equally guilty, Jackson was given life without parole.
Maybe Jackson is incorrigible, although 14 is a little early to make that judgment, but the sentence admits of no possibility that through maturity, education, rehabilitation programs, mentors or perhaps religion, he is capable of turning his life around.
Justice Samuel Alito posited a hypothetical 17 1/2-year-old who guns down a dozen students and teachers and "must be given a chance to persuade a judge to permit his release into society."
The operative word here is "chance." If the judge and jury are not persuaded by the mass murderer's arguments, there's nothing stopping them from sentencing him to life without parole. Even the advocacy groups that described the killer as a "child" would likely not quarrel with that sentence.
This article was published and distributed by Scripps Howard News Service (www.scrippsnews.com).