Washington, D.C. -
The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Juvenile offenders can not be given Life without Parole sentences, adding to other rulings in recent years consistent with a softening of punishment on youthful offenders.
In their recent ruling, the court ruled in a 5-4 decision that offenders under 18 at the time of their crime can not be sentenced to life in prison without at least having the possibility of parole. "The mandatory sentencing schemes before us violate this principle of proportionality, and so violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment," Kagan said.
In 2005, the court banned the death penalty for minors that commit aggravated murder. In both rulings, the court urged lesser mandatory sentencing saying that youthful offender can be more easily rehabilitated usually and that the growing trend in the United States of stiff and long sentences is becoming alarming, and encroaching on the Eighth Amendment.
Yesterday's ruling comes from two separate cased, one from Alabama and One from Arkansas. In the Alabama case, the boy robbed a neighbors house with an accomplice, then they beat the man to death and set his house on fire. In the Arkansas case, the minor was part of a group who robbed a convenience store and killed the clerk with multiple shotgun blasts.
About 2,500 prisoners are serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, at least 79 of whom were 14 years or younger at the time, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, which is representing the two men before the high court.
Supporters of the ruling say that they hope this will begin the push to making real rehabilitation programs inside prisons more widely available and mandatory. As states across the country have been reducing prison sentences and reducing parole and probation conditions in an effort to save money, more prisoners are being released sooner.
"Most prisoners in the United States do eventually get out, and if they are just housed in a human warehouse, they only get worse, despite politicians get tough on crime stances and the public's out of sight, our of mind belief" said Greg Wornecki who represents a coalition of groups that advocate for more prison rehabilitation and education efforts rather than just longer sentences as the cure to the problem. He also said rehabilitation costs less than housing someone for life when they eventually return to prison, having had no rehab before that.
In his argument to the court, Attorney Bryan Stevenson had urged the justices not to "give up" on child offenders, who he said are fundamentally different from adults. He said that while they must be held accountable for their actions, youths are also works in progress, emotionally and developmentally.
The justices agreed in the majority opinion saying minors think and make decisions differently than adults.