The Supreme Court appeared ready Tuesday to say anew that young people who commit even the most brutal crimes should not be punished as harshly as adults, taking up a pair of cases in which 14-year-olds convicted of murder are serving life sentences with no chance of parole.
The latest in a line of cases asks whether young teenagers facing the rest of their lives in prison deserve the possibility of a second chance. In recent years, the court has ruled out the death penalty for juveniles and life without parole for young people whose crimes did not involve killing.
Meaning Roper v. Simmons (2005) and Graham v. Florida (2010), which respectively banned the death penalty for juveniles under 18 and life without parole (LWOP) for juveniles under 18 who did not kill. Both those decisions were written by Justice Kennedy, so all eyes were on him during today's arguments.
Roughly 2,300 people are behind bars for life with no chance of winning their freedom for crimes they committed before their 18th birthday. Seventy-nine of them are in prison for crimes that took place when they were 14 or younger.
Justice Anthony Kennedy raised the lack of flexibility in sentencing young killers. Several states that try people younger than 18 in adult courts allow for only one sentence, life with no chance of parole, for defendants who are convicted of murder.
Kennedy seemed to indicate he might favor a ruling that gives judges a role in determining an appropriate sentence, “that the sentence cannot be mandatory, but that in some cases it might still be imposed.”
The court has a range of options if a majority decides to limit states’ sentencing powers:
—The court could issue a blanket ruling that applies to everyone under 18.
—It could set a younger cutoff age, as both defendants at the high court were 14.
—The justices also might throw out mandatory sentences but still allow judges to impose life without parole once they consider the circumstances of the crime and the defendant’s background. On that point, several justices pointed to the apparent difference in the culpability of the defendants in the two cases.
It is my hope, of course, that Kennedy continues his legacy of restoring sanity to the insane way we punish juveniles in the U.S. by giving a blanket ruling forbidding LWOP for anyone under 18, no matter what.
But beware of the dissenters.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who dissented in earlier juvenile sentencing cases, scoffed at the notion.
“Well, I thought that modern penology has abandoned that rehabilitation thing, and they no longer call prisons reformatories or whatever, and punishment is the criterion now. Deserved punishment for crime,” Scalia said.
LOL. Yeah, "or whatever," Nino.
The case is Miller v. Alabama (2012) and an opinion should be here by June. While it sounds like there is a compromise afoot to a total outright ban for all juveniles under18, I will predict a Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988) kind of decision: 5-4 ban of LWOP for juveniles 15 and under.
From my read of it, there simply aren't enough states who have gotten rid of it for 16 or 17 year olds via the Trop test.