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Supreme Court Ruling Bars Mandatory Life Sentences for Juveniles

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Posted July 4, 2012

Interview with Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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In another important ruling before its summer adjournment, the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 that imposing mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of murder is unconstitutional. However, under the ruling, judges can still sentence juveniles to life without parole, but only on a case-by-case basis. The high court had abolished the death penalty for juveniles in 2005 and in 2010 had eliminated life without parole for juveniles for crimes not involving homicide.

Writing for SCOTUSblog.com, Lyle Denniston summarized the ruling: "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, can he impose such a sentence. The decision provided no specific guidelines, nor any clearly defined list of factors, that are to control that sentencing decision."

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, who assesses the ruling and where it places the United States in comparison with how other nations treat young offenders convicted of serious crimes.

MARC MAUER: This is a very significant decision. First, because it's a continuing recognition from the court that juveniles are different from adults, in line with the court's decision in 2005 finding the death penalty unconstitutional for juveniles, and the 2010 decision banning life without parole for non-homicide cases, and now the current cases which may apply to as many as 2,000 of the 2,500 juveniles currently serving these terms. So it's been a rather momentous shift in a relatively short period of time now.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Isn't one of the things underlying the court's new attitude toward juvenile offenders the fact that there's been a lot of research lately on brain development in teens and young adults?

MARC MAUER: One of the main factors leading to this re-evaluation of juvenile sentencing has been new research on brain development over the last decade or so. That's documented that juvenile brains are less developed; it's not until the early or mid-20s that the adult brain is fully formed. What this means is that juveniles exhibit less maturity, more impulsiveness, less ability to foresee the consequences of their actions. What this means in a sentencing context is yes, they're responsible for their actions, but if we look at maturity, culpability issues, there are very distinct differences between a 15-year-old's ability to foresee the consequences of his actions and a 30-year-old's to do the same.

BETWEEN THE LINES: When you say this Supreme Court decision could affect as many as 2,000 of the 2,500 people serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, who are the prisoners in each of those categories?

MARC MAUER: The Supreme Court decision did not ban juvenile life without parole, but what the court did say is that the penalty can't be imposed in a mandatory way. Right now in many states, if a juvenile is tried in adult court and convicted of homicide, the judge has no option in sentencing, and has to impose mandatory life without parole. So what the court said is because they're juveniles; judges need to have discretion in considering what penalty to impose. They can look at the case and impose life without parole, but they have to have other options available to them as well. So the initial estimates are there may be as many as 2,000 of the 2,500 juveniles currently serving to life without parole who were sentenced under these mandatory provisions that have now been found to be unconstitutional.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Marc Mauer, it's amazing to think that just a few years ago this country was executing people whose crimes were committed when they were juveniles. Are there any other cases making their way to the Supreme Court that might further differentiate juvenile offenders from adults?

MARC MAUER: While I find this current decision very encouraging, it's important to put it in context also. The 2,500 juveniles serving life without parole in the U.S. is unimaginable by world standards. Research in recent years has not identified a single case anywhere in the world where a juvenile has been sentenced to life without parole, so there's clearly so much ground that needs to be covered. In the coming years, there may be additional cases being brought. One area of attention are so-called felony murder cases. These are ones where there may be two people involved in the robbery of a drug store. One goes in the store with a gun, the other is the getaway driver. Something goes bad, the gun goes off, the drug store owner is killed, and the getaway driver is charged as if he also committed the murder. Obviously, he's still culpable, but should he be responsible for the murder and be sentenced to juvenile life without parole? There's significant numbers of cases like this, currently serving these penalties. There's some litigation going on around these issues as well; whether they'll reach the Court in the near future, we don't know. But there are other avenues to address this question as well.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you know how many of those serving life with the possibility of parole were convicted as juveniles?

MARC MAUER: Right now, there are just under 7,000 juveniles serving some type of life sentence; of these, 2,500 serving life without parole, so there's about 4,500 around the country serving life with the possibility of parole. That varies quite a bit by state. It may be in some states you can be considered for parole after 15 or 20 years; in others, it's often unlikely you'd be considered before 40 or 50 years. So there are many cases, both for juveniles and adults, where life even with the possibility of parole, is not a very real option that many people would actually get out of prison, at least not before they're very elderly.

Visit The Sentencing Project's website at sentencingproject.org.

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