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Opinion recap: Narrow ruling on young murderers’ sentences


States — and the federal government — that allow life prison sentences without a chance of release for minors who commit murder are now on notice, from the Supreme Court, that they may have a hard time justifying any such sentence that is actually imposed.   In a 5-4 ruling on Thursday, the Court left open the possibility that such sentences could still be imposed, even as it barred making such a sentence mandatory in all cases of homicides by youths under age 18.  At a minimum, any life-without-parole sentence for an adolescent murderer will get very heavy scrutiny if it goes to the Supreme Court.   Indeed, the Court said it expects such a sentence to be uncommon from here on.

The new decision, written by the newest Justice, Elena Kagan, continues the trend that started a quarter-century ago of demanding that criminal punishment for children generally must be different — and less harsh — than for adults.   The whole premise behind that trend is that children are not adults, but rather are unformed people with the capacity to change, and to grow beyond being a thoroughly corrupted individual beyond redemption.

In earlier rulings in that trend, the Court had flatly barred the death penalty for minors who commit murder and had flatly barred life without parole for minors who commit a crime that does not involve the death of the victim (so-called non-homicide crimes).   In the new combined cases of Miller v. Alabama (10-9646) and Jackson v. Hobbs (10-9647),  youths convicted of murders when they were 14 years old asked the Court to extend such a flat ban to life without parole when the victim is murdered.   As an alternative, the two youths asked the Court at least to rule out entirely any such sentence if the youth were only 14 when the crime occurred.

The Court chose not to adopt either approach.   Instead, it simply struck out any requirement that life without parole be the mandatory penalty for murder by a minor.   The Court did not rule on whether that sentence would be invalid in the two cases before it — involving Evan James Miller of Speake, Ala., and Kuntrell Jackson, of Blytheville, Ark.   It sent their cases back to state courts to make the kind of “individualized” sentencing decision that the new ruling demands.   If, once again, they are sentenced to life without parole, their cases conceivably could return to the Supreme Court.

What sentencing judges now must do, when a youth is convicted of murder that occurred before age 18, is to focus directly and only on that one individual in choosing a sentence.  The judge must assess the specific age of that individual, examine that youth’s childhood and life experience, weigh the degree of responsibility the youth was capable of exercising, and assess that youth’s chances to become rehabilitated.  Only if the judge then concludes that life without parole is a “proportional” penalty, given all of the factors that mitigate the youth’s guilt, can he impose such a sentence.

The decision provided no specific guidelines, nor any clearly defined list of factors, that are to control that sentencing decision.   The opinion noted that, taking into account everything the Court had said in the string of decisions limiting punishment for minors, about children’s “diminished culpability and heightened capacity for change,” the Court thinks that “appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon.”

It commented that judges with a youthful murderer before the bench will have “great difficulty” distinguishing between a minor whose crime reflected “unfortunate yet transient immaturity” and “the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.”   The opinion concluded: “Although we do not foreclose a sentencer’s ability to make that judgment in homicide cases, we require it to take into account how children are different, and how those differences counsel against irrevocably sentencing them to a lifetime in prison.”

Justice Kagan’s opinion was joined by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who has been the Court’s leader in monitoring the sentencing of youths who commit crimes; as the senior Justice in the majority, Kennedy assigned the opinion in this case to the junior Justice.  The opinion also was joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor (who, in a separate opinion written by Breyer, argued that if the state of Arkansas again seeks to impose life without parole on Kentrell Jackson, it should have to prove that Jackson personally killed or intended to kill the robbery victim who was shot to death in that case.  Without that finding, those two Justices said, life without parole would be an unconstitutional sentence for Jackson).  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also joined the Kagan opinion, and did not write separately; neither did Kennedy.

Three of the four dissenters wrote opinions: Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas; Justice Thomas, joined by Scalia, and Justice Alito, also joined by Scalia.

Plain English summary

In a series of decisions dating back to 1988, the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that youths under age 18 who commit crimes must not necessarily get as severe a punishment as adults who committed the same kind of crimes.  Among other rulings, the Court has forbidden the death penalty for minors who commit murders, and it has barred a sentence of life in prison without a chance of release for minors who commit crimes in which the victim is not killed.  In this new ruling, the Court avoiding imposing such a flat ban on life without parole for a minor who commits murder, but it did rule out such a sentence as a mandatory requirement in all such cases.  It said, though, that it does not expect very many youths under age 18 to get such a sentence that essentially would require them to stay in prison until they die.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Opinion recap: Narrow ruling on young murderers’ sentences, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 25, 2012, 8:43 PM),