Supreme Court ban on juvenile lifers is a win for African-Americans

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This week the U.S. Supreme Court scored a victory for reform in the criminal justice system.  In Miller v. Alabama, the high court struck down mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles under 18 convicted of homicide, finding them to be an Eighth Amendment violation.

The Eighth Amendment guarantees that individuals have a right to not have excessive sanctions against them.  The punishment must fit the crime and fit the offender, and is based on “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

This 5-4 decision is hopeful because it reaffirms the idea of rehabilitation; that although people must pay for crimes they commit, there is a chance at redemption.  The case is important for children — who are not fully developed and not as culpable as adults — and in particular African-American and Latino children who more likely get caught up in the prison system, the world’s largest.

Miller involves two 14-year old boys convicted of murder—one in Alabama, the other in Arkansas.  One of the youthful offenders was in and out of foster homes, and suffered from child abuse and addiction.  The decision comes in the spirit of Roper v. Simmons, which found the death penalty for juveniles to violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida also struck down juvenile life without parole for offenses other than murder.

In the court’s opinion, Justice Elena Kagan, an Obama appointee, noted that there are fundamental differences between the mind of an adult and the mind of a child, and that only a small percentage of adolescents who engage in illegal activity become long-term problems.  Life without parole does not allow for rehabilitation, suggesting that children are unable to change, and will always pose a danger to society.  Such a punishment, she concluded, amounts to a death sentence.

“Such mandatory penalties, by their nature, preclude a sentencer from taking account of an offender’s age and the wealth of characteristics and circumstances attendant to it,” Justice Kagan wrote.

“Under these schemes, every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other—the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one,” she said.  “And still worse, each juvenile (including these two 14-year-olds) will receive the same sentence as the vast majority of adults committing similar homicide offenses — but really, as  Graham  noted, a  greater sentence than those adults will serve,” Kagan added.

“Determining the appropriate sentence for a teenager convicted of murder presents grave and challenging questions of morality and social policy.  Our role, however, is to apply the law, not to answer such questions,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his dissent.