WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday limited the use of life terms in prison for murderers under 18, ruling that judges must consider the defendant’s youth and the nature of the crime before putting him behind bars with no hope for parole.
In a 5-4 decision, the high 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.
Justice Elena Kagan referred to state laws that “mandated each juvenile (convicted of murder) die in prison even if the judge or jury would have thought that his youth and…the nature of his crime made a lesser sentence (for example, life with the possibility of parole) more appropriate.”
“We therefore hold that mandatory life without parole for those under age of 18 at the time of their crime violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments,” she said. Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor agreed.
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.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. dissented. “Put simply, if a 17-year old is convicted of deliberately murdering an innocent victim, it is not unusual for the murderer to receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole.” Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined in dissent.
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. And they also passed laws that set life in prison without parole as the required punishment for murder.
In one case that came before the court, Kuntrell Jackson was 14 when he and two other teenagers went to a video store in Arkansas planning to rob it. He stayed outside, and one of the youths pulled a gun and killed the store clerk. Jackson was charged as an adult and given a life term with no parole.
In the second case, Evan Miller, a 14-year-old from Alabama, was convicted of murder after he and another boy set fire to a trailer where they had bought drugs from a neighbor. He too was give a life term with no parole.
Today’s decision in Miller vs. Alabama is the third in a decade that puts new constitutional limits on crimes involving juveniles.
In 2005, the court abolished the death sentence for those under 18 who are convicted of murder. In 2010, the justices went further and said life terms with no parole are unconstitutional for juveniles who commit crimes short of murder.
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.
Bryan Stevenson, the Alabama attorney who argued the case, called the ruling “an important win for children. The court took a significant step forward by recognizing the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that do not allow sentencers to consider the unique status of children.”
[For the Record, 1:20 p.m. PST June 25: The headline on this post has been corrected to more accurately reflect the court's decision on mandatory juvenile life imprisonment without parole.]