The United States Supreme Court recently held that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional when applied to juveniles. This marks the third time in a decade that the Supreme Court has imposed limits on how juveniles may be sentenced. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that juveniles could not be sentenced to death, and in 2010, the Court prohibited life terms without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder. Currently, approximately 2,000 prisoners are serving mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed when they were under the age of 18 years old.
The recent decision found mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole to violate the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment when applied to juveniles prosecuted in juvenile delinquency cases. All states allow for circumstances in which a juvenile can be transferred to adult criminal court and be charged as an adult, even though they are under the age of 18.
The Supreme Court, however, has often noted the “unique status of children,” and in the recent decision held that judges and juries must consider the defendant’s age and nature of the crime before imposing a life sentence without the possibility for parole. The ruling does not prohibit sentencing juveniles to a life term without parole, but does mandate individualized sentencing and requires the consideration of mitigating circumstances, including the juvenile’s age, and the defendant’s background and upbringing.
The ruling will affect 28 states that impose mandatory life sentences without parole for murder. Immediately, states were responding to the Court’s ruling. In Iowa, the governor commuted the sentences of 38 inmates sentenced to mandatory life to the minimum term of 60 years. The Pennsylvania legislature has begun hearings on current sentencing laws in order to comply with the recent ruling.
In California, 309 inmates are currently serving life without parole for crimes committed when they were 16 or 17 years old. Prior to 1990, juveniles were not eligible for mandatory life sentences in California. However, proposition 115, approved in 1990 provided mandatory life without parole sentences for 16 and 17 year old defendants if convicted of special circumstance murder unless the judge made a finding of good reason to impose a sentence of 25 years to life.
The Court’s recent decision does not directly impact the cases of prisoners already sentenced to mandatory life without parole when they were juveniles, but it will provide a minor – and his criminal defense attorney – a basis to seek re-sentencing.