A mandatory sentence of life without parole for teen murder is not constitutional according to a Supreme Court ruling on Monday.
In a 5-4 ruling, the Court determined that mandatory sentencing schemes for homicide crimes are not applicable to juveniles tried for homicide. Mandatory sentences do not allow judges and juries sufficient discretion to consider youth as a factor in sentencing according to the majority opinion by Justice Elena Kagan.
The decision marks the third case in five years by the Court that deals with sentencing for juveniles.
In 2005, the Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for juveniles and in 2010 they banned juvenile life without parole for non-homicide offenses.
Monday's ruling builds on the previous decisions. All three cases note the uniqueness of youths' ability to change as reason for altering sentencing schemes in the case of juveniles.
Some news sources have touted this opinion as a requirement that youth can never be sentenced to life without parole, but that isn't an accurate reading of the decision. A life sentence without parole is still an option; the Court has only said that it cannot be the mandatory sentence for any juvenile crime.
This is an important distinction since the absence of mandatory sentencing doesn't mean any sentence is taken off the table.
Judges and juries will now have discretion to determine that life without parole is too harsh a punishment for a teen convicted of murder. But by the same token, they will have the ability to decide that such a sentence is appropriate and to impose it on a juvenile offender.
What the ruling does is eliminate categories of murder that must be punished by life sentences without parole. This puts responsibility on the trier of fact to decide in every case whether there are specific factors that warrant life without parole.
Teen murder may still be punished with a life sentence without the possibility of parole. But the Court's Monday decision requires judges and juries to make that decision for themselves, rather than rely on a mandatory sentence.
- Sentencing Law FAQ (FindLaw)
- Juvenile Justice (FindLaw)
- Supreme Court to Take Another Look at Juvenile Sentencing (FindLaw)
- States Rethinking Teen Life Sentences (FindLaw's Blotter)