Iowa prisons now hold 38 inmates who were sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed when they were not yet 18 years old. A new U.S. Supreme Court ruling gives them strong prospects but no guarantees of having their sentences reduced.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the 5-4 ruling released today that invalidated mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of murder. Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen Breyer joined the majority ruling. Lyle Denniston reported for the SCOTUS blog that plaintiffs had asked the court to ban sentences of life without parole for juveniles, or at least to prohibit such sentences for convicted killers who were only 14 years old at the time of the crime.
The Court chose not to adopt either approach. Instead, it simply struck out any requirement that life without parole be the mandatory penalty for murder by a minor. The Court did not rule on whether that sentence would be invalid in the two cases before it - involving Evan James Miller of Speake, Ala., and Kuntrell Jackson, of Blytheville, Ark. It sent their cases back to state courts to make the kind of "individualized" sentencing decision that the new ruling demands. If, once again, they are sentenced to life without parole, their cases conceivably could return to the Supreme Court.
What sentencing judges now must do, when a youth is convicted of murder that occurred before age 18, is to focus directly and only on that one individual in choosing a sentence. The judge must assess the specific age of that individual, examine that youth's childhood and life experience, weigh the degree of responsibility the youth was capable of exercising, and assess that youth's chances to become rehabilitated. Only if the judge then concludes that life without parole is a "proportional" penalty, given all of the factors that mitigate the youth's guilt.
Kagan's ruling provides extensive background on previous U.S. Supreme Court decisions rejecting state laws that deny judges discretion in sentencing, as well as decisions that limited the application of the death penalty to juveniles. Children have "distinctive (and transitory) mental traits and environmental vulnerabilities," including recklessness and immaturity. Mandatory sentencing rules violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment because they prevent judges from considering any mitigating factors when deciding on a proportional prison term. Here's an excerpt from pages 14 and 15 of today's ruling.
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. 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. 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. [...]
To recap: Mandatory life without parole for a juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features-among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him-and from which he cannot usually extricate himself-no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him. Indeed, it ignores that he might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense if not for incompetencies associated with youth-for example, his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys.[...] And finally, this mandatory punishment disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it.
Pat Curtis reported for Radio Iowa, "More than three dozen Iowans serving time for murder will get their prison terms reduced" because of the Supreme Court ruling. That's overstating the case. In all likelihood, sentencing reviews will provide some possibility of parole for most of the 38 Iowans serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were juveniles. However, Kagan's ruling did not forbid a judge from sentencing a juvenile to life in prison without parole. Judges may use their discretion to do so without violating the Eighth Amendment, as long as they take into account the nature of the crime and the individual characteristics of the convicted killer.
On a related note, lots of research has shown that adolescent brains are "works in progress," and that their limitations are related to some poor decisions by teenagers. But not every scientist believes that neurological evidence can be used to conclude that juveniles are less responsible for the crimes they commit.
[T]here are serious flaws with the "immature brain made me do it" argument. [...] All of the neuroscience findings cited in the briefs rely on a correlation of brain structure with either age or a measurement of cognitive function. Correlation means that you take one measurement and see how it changes with some other measurement. While on average, these conclusions are statistically valid, there is too much variation from one person to another to draw conclusions about any one individual.