The Supreme Court yesterday issued a ruling that declared unconstitutional mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for children. In its 5 to 4 decision the Court said that cases involving children and these sentences must take into consideration their age and other mitigating factors such as their family and home environment. The ruling overturns legislation in 28 states. Judges may still sentence juveniles convicted of murder to life sentences without the possibility of parole but must take into account mitigating circumstances. There are approximately 2,500 inmates serving life-without-parole sentences for murders committed before they were 18. Of those, 2,000 were because of mandatory sentences. Today’s decision requires the lower courts to conduct new sentencing hearings where judges will have to consider children’s individual characters and life circumstances, including age, as well as the circumstances of the crime.
Specifically, the Court holds that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment “guarantees individuals the right not to be subjected to excessive sanctions,” and that this right “flows from the basic precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned” to both the offender and the offense. Sentencing courts’ discretion must be exercised in an informed and thoughtful way that acknowledges that children are biologically different than adults and less responsible for their wrongdoing, and that the courts should provide the individuals affected by the ruling a meaningful opportunity to show they have rehabilitated themselves and are appropriate candidates for release.
This decision follows the Court’s earlier rulings in Roper v. Simmons (2005) and Graham v. Florida (2010), which acknowledge the diminished culpability of children. In 2005 the court banned the death penalty for juveniles who kill ruling that the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment must be seen through “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress in a maturing society.” In 2010, the court said juveniles whose crimes did not include murder could not be sentenced to life in prison without the hope of release at some future date.