Supreme Court Ruling on Whether Life Sentences for Juveniles are Unconstitutional

The United States Supreme Court announced Monday it would decide whether juveniles under 14 can be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The decision focused on the crime committed as much as it does the offender’s age.

A ruling in 2010 by the court said that a life sentence for juveniles who committed crimes other than murder was unconstitutional and violated the Eighth Amendment, according to reports. The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.”

The justices could extend that ruling to cover murder convictions, as well, after hearing the two cases before the court: Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs.

Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson are serving life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole for murders committed when they were 14 years old. Nationwide, 73 prisoners are serving similar life sentences, the pair’s lawyers said.

Only 19 states, including Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and California, have handed out life sentences to juveniles.

In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons and abolished the death penalty for juveniles entirely. The classification covers all those under age 18.

Previously, a decision in Thompson v. Oklahoma in 1988 banned the death penalty in those 16 and younger. The decisions, however, were contested on the bench.

The 2005 decision passed by a vote of 5 to 4. The 2010 decision in Graham vs. Florida also was made by a 5 to 4 margin.

It is unclear how the court may rule in the matter, which has much grey area, according to reports.

Jackson was convicted after he robbed a video store in Arkansas in 1999 with two other juveniles. During the robbery, one of the others involved shot and killed the store clerk.

Miller was convicted after he and another juvenile beat a neighbor and set fire to his home, which eventually led to his death.

There could be a ruling that neither upholds the convictions, nor bans the life-sentence entirely, the L.A. Times reported. Justices could use the cases to make the distinction between youths who participated in crimes that led to killings and those who committed the killings.

The ruling could have implications for the more than 2,000 youths age 17 and under who are serving life sentences in the U.S., according to Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law organization close to the two cases before the court.

However, the lawyers are aiming at banning life sentences for the youngest of offenders, in particular those 13 and 14 years old at the time of the crime.

Alabama civil rights attorney Bryon Stevenson, the lawyer who filed the cases, said the life sentences were uncommon and unconstitutional.

“Internationally, the United States is the only country in the world where death-in-prison sentences have been imposed on young adolescents,” said Stevenson in his appeal.

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