U.S. Supreme Court: No Automatic Life Without Parole for Juveniles
The U.S. Supreme Court recently held, in Miller v. Alabama, that sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A Boston criminal defense attorney can answer your questions about sentencing and provide more information about this important decision. Here is a brief overview:
In this case, a 14-year-old boy was convicted of murder in the course of arson; he was sentenced to the mandatory minimum — life without parole. (in conjunction with this case, the Supreme Court also reviewed a case arising out of Arkansas, in which a 14-year-old boy was convicted of capital felony murder and aggravated robbery, and sentenced to life without parole.)
The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment guarantees the right to be free from “excessive” sanctions. In deciding this case, the Supreme Court held that whether a punishment is excessive should be determined in light of its proportionality to both the offender and the offense, and that children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. The Court reasoned that children lack maturity; have less sense of responsibility; are more reckless and impulsive; and take more risks. Moreover, juveniles are more vulnerable to outside forces, and they have less of a sense of self. Their traits are less fixed; therefore, they have a greater chance for reform. The Court determined that a mandatory life sentence prevents the sentencing court from examining the juvenile’s family and home environment. It neglects the circumstances surrounding the offense, including the extent of the juvenile’s participation in the conduct, and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him. A mandatory life sentence ignores the fact that a juvenile may be unable to deal with police officers or prosecutors, or even assist his own attorneys. Life without parole is especially harsh for a juvenile, as he will almost inevitably serve more years and a greater percentage of his life in prison than an adult offender.
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