Juvenile murderers and justice


Ruling on two cases involving 14-year-old murderers, the Supreme Court on Monday rightly struck down laws in 28 states that require some minors convicted of murder to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Unfortunately, the justices stopped short of prohibiting all such sentences, thereby muddying the legal waters and making it likely that they will have to consider future cases from states, such as California, where that penalty is permissible but not required.

Monday’s 5-4 decision involved two crimes. Kuntrell Jackson participated in an attempted holdup of a video store in Arkansas in which another boy shot a clerk to death. Evan Miller was convicted by an Alabama court, along with a 16-year-old friend, of killing a neighbor by beating him and setting his trailer on fire. The question was whether, despite these offenses, it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment to deny Jackson and Miller a chance at some point to demonstrate that they had reformed.

In a 2005 ruling prohibiting capital punishment for juveniles, the court, reflecting the findings of psychologists and neurologists, cited three differences between younger teenagers and adults: Adolescents are likelier than adults to display a “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility”; they are more susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure; and “the character of a juvenile is not as well formed as that of an adult.” Using the same reasoning, the court in 2010 ruled that states could not sentence juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole for non-homicide crimes.

In her majority opinion, Justice Elena Kagan cited the 2005 and 2010 cases, but she also based her ruling on precedents in which the Supreme Court outlawed mandatory death sentences for adults and required that sentencing judges take into account possible extenuating circumstances. She concluded that “the confluence of these two lines of precedent leads to the conclusion that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles violate the 8th Amendment.” It is not unconstitutional, however, for judges to impose such sentences at their discretion (though Kagan predicted legitimate uses of that authority would be “uncommon”).

Perhaps this limited approach was necessary to win the vote of JusticeAnthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinions in the 2005 and 2010 decisions. In those cases he cited trends against imposing the death penalty on juvenile murderers and sentencing adolescents to life in prison without possibility of parole for non-homicide offenses.

Whatever the explanation, the court has not yet done away with the need for legislation — such as California’s proposed SB 9 — to make it possible for juveniles convicted of even the most heinous crimes to prove that they are entitled to another chance.