In the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a key provision in Arizona’s highly controversial immigration law SB-1070 while striking down the rest, the Supreme Court also says it’s unconstitutional for states to pass laws automatically sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole for murder.
The high court threw out Americans’ ability to send children to prison for the rest of their lives with no chance of ever getting out. The 5-4 decision is in line with others the court has made, including ruling out the death penalty for juveniles and life without parole for young people whose crimes did not involve killing. The court struck down as cruel and unusual punishment the laws in about 28 states that mandated a life term for murderers, including those under age 18. The justices ruled in the cases of two 14-year-olds who were given life terms for their role in a homicide, but their decision goes further. It applies to all those under 18. It does not automatically free any prisoner, and it does not forbid life terms for young murderers.
Nonetheless, it is an important victory for those who have objected to imposing very long prison terms on very young offenders.
The court’s opinion does not say whether its ruling applies only to future sentences, or whether it could give a new hearing to the more than 2,000 prisoners who are serving life terms for earlier murders. The majority, however, argues that states had not necessarily intended to impose life terms on juvenile offenders. Instead, they passed laws that allowed juveniles to be sentenced as adults for serious crimes. They also passed laws that set life in prison without parole as the required punishment for murder.
The high court in 2005 banned the death penalty for those under 18 who commit aggravated murder. Then, five years later, the justices said juveniles found guilty of non-homicides could not receive life without parole. The spotlight has now turned on the youngest of killers and the question of whether a national consensus has developed to treat them differently regarding a lifetime of incarceration.
Today’s decision does not end life terms for young murderers, but it says judges or juries must consider the defendant’s youth before imposing a life term with no parole.
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