In a ruling that will have ramifications for the juvenile criminal system in Maryland, the United States Supreme Court abolished any mandatory life sentences for juveniles without parole. However, individual judges could still sentence a juvenile to life without parole in individual cases, but state and federal laws could not be used to automatically hand down such a sentence.
Justice Kagan felt the imposition of a life sentence without parole presented “too great a risk of disproportionate punishment.” This decision will reverse laws in at least 26 states and federal statutes that made life imprisonment without parole mandatory for certain types of murders allegedly committed.
Criminal defense attorneys understand that the handling of cases where juveniles are charged with crimes will always be different from the handling of cases where adults are charged with crimes. And the fact that such cases make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court demonstrates why such matters are often extremely challenging.
The two individual defendants in this case had both been sentenced to life without parole at the age of 14. One individual never actually pulled the trigger concerning a clerk that was shot and killed, but this juvenile was present while participating in an alleged robbery when the shooting did take place. Because the boy was present and allegedly participated in a felony, he was therefore charged with felony murder.
Justices Breyer and Sotomayer felt that the decision did not go far enough. “There is no basis for imposing a sentence of life without parole upon a juvenile who did not himself kill or intend to kill,” Justice Breyer wrote in a separate opinion.
It’s difficult to predict what direction the court will take next. Though this prevents courts from implementing an automatic life sentence, the decision was made on a 5 to 4 split among the justices. What this means is that courts could reverse this decision quite easily in the future if one or two justices change hand.
Source: Charlotte Observer, “Court bars mandatory life without parole for kids,” by Jesse J. Holland, June 25, 2012