No More Mandatory Life Terms for Kids

Blogging the Beltway: The man behind the high court ruling calls it a win for juvenile justice.


(The Root) — It may have been overshadowed by other news from the Supreme Court, but on Monday the nine justices also handed down a major juvenile-justice ruling.

The court ruled 5-4 that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders, ages 17 and under, are unconstitutional. The decision expanded a 2010 Supreme Court decision, which had declared such sentences cruel and unusual punishment for teens whose crimes did not involve homicide. Now, in cases of homicide, too, states cannot impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences on juveniles, striking down statutes in 29 states that allow it.

The decision was based on the consolidated cases of Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, who were both given life-in-prison sentences with no chance of parole for their involvement in homicides when they were 14 years old. In essence the majority argued that children are not adults corrupted beyond redemption, but unformed people with the capacity to change and grow.

The ruling does not automatically free any of the estimated 2,000 prisoners serving life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles (60 percent of whom are black); nor does it forbid such life terms for youths convicted of homicide. Rather, sentencing judges must first take into account the offender’s age, the nature of the crime and other mitigating factors.

Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who represented Jackson and Miller before the Supreme Court, spoke with The Root about his commitment to juvenile offenders and why he believes that mandates locking them up for life without parole are unconstitutional.

The Root: With regard to the people serving mandatory life sentences for homicide convictions when they were teens, what will happen to them now?

Bryan Stevenson: They will now be entitled to new sentencing hearings. I think it’s significant that the court went on to say that cases where life without parole will be reinstated are expected to be “uncommon.” What they’ve said about the difficulty of making permanent judgments about kids makes this a sentence that we should not see in a lot of cases.

I actually think a lot of these folks will be advantaged by showing institutional histories that suggest that they are not beyond hope, redemption or rehabilitation. A lot of our clients have done really well and have accomplished some pretty impressive things, given that they’ve been told they’re going to die in prison. That may be influential at these resentencings.

TR: What about youths serving life-without-parole sentences that were not subjected to mandatory-sentencing guidelines? Does the ruling impact them at all?