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Justices Bar Mandatory Life Terms for Juveniles


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

In today's program. we're covering three new rulings issued by the Supreme Court. One of them, a decision against mandatory life sentences for juveniles in homicide cases. In a five-to-four ruling, the justices said such blanket sentences violate the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. They said children who commit crimes, even serious ones, are different from adults.

NPR's Carrie Johnson explains.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The Court threw out mandatory life sentences for two 14-year-old boys. One was convicted of murder for going to rob an Arkansas video store where the clerk was shot, even though he wasn't the trigger man. The other beat up his neighbor and set the man's trailer on fire in Alabama, after a night of drinking and drug use. Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer who argued the case for the two boys, says the Supreme Court ruling gives them and thousands more children new hope.

BRYAN STEVENSON: The United States is the only country in the world that imposes death in prison sentences on children. And I continue to believe to say to young kids - 13 and 14-year-olds or any juvenile - that you're fit only to die in prison is cruel.

JOHNSON: The five justice majority led by Elena Kagan did not ban life sentences for juvenile murderers altogether. Lower court judges can still impose that sentence, but now they don't have to Stevenson says.

STEVENSON: In most areas of criminal law, we require sentences to consider circumstances, mitigation, individual aspects of the crime and the offender. That didn't happen for most of these children.

JOHNSON: Twenty nine states impose mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted in murder cases. But Justice Kagan wrote that she expects that to be an uncommon punishment now.

Good news to Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center.

MARSHA LEVICK: The practical effect of the decision, and I certainly hope the practical effect of the decision, is that we will see very few sentences of juvenile life without parole being imposed going forward.

JOHNSON: Levick says the ruling opens up a chance at new sentences for about 2,000 juveniles already sitting in prison. But that process could open up new wounds for family members of victims, says Jennifer Bishop Jenkins.

JENNIFER BISHOP JENKINS: There's going to be a deluge of legislation and litigation and resentencing now that's been opened today by the Court. And most victims' families don't even know that this has happened.

JOHNSON: Jennifer Bishop Jenkins leads the National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Lifers. She says many family members have moved away or thrown away paperwork they might need in case they want to testify at a resentencing.

Irene Sullivan, a retired juvenile court judge in Florida, had asked the court to get rid of mandatory sentences. She predicts there could be less litigation in these cases over the long run.

IRENE SULLIVAN: If you think about the cases that haven't been tried yet, there might be more opportunities for plea bargaining.

JOHNSON: Sullivan says, as a judge, she always wanted more flexibility to consider the maturity level of a defendant and what happened in his life. But mandatory sentences tied her hands.

The Court majority characterized its ruling as a natural next step, after it found the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles and took life without parole off the table for children who committed crimes other than murder. But four conservative justices said today's ruling was out of line. They argued the Court was wading into ethical and moral decisions, and taking away too much power from Congress and the states. Jennifer Bishop Jenkins.

JENKINS: To have the Supreme Court just undo what the majority of states through their legislatures have done is also very problematic, especially because the U.S. Constitution is quite clear that it's the job of states to establish the penalty for crimes.

JOHNSON: Justice Samuel Alito who read his dissent from the bench took pains to call the defendants murderers, not children. He said the Court has, quote, "No license to impose our vision of the future on our fellow citizens."

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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