Mandatory Juvenile Life Without Parole Sentences Unconstitutional, Supreme Court Rules

June 25, 2012

In a landmark decision today that effectively strikes down Michigan’s sentencing scheme, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for children under the age of 18 to be sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without any chance of parole. The 5-4 decision, written by Justice Elena Kagan, invalidates statutes in 29 states, including Michigan, for violating the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“While rebuking the precise sentencing scheme used in Michigan to incarcerate children without the possibility of parole, the Supreme Court again recognized that children should be treated differently in the eyes of the law,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director. “The Court made clear that it is cruel to dole out the state’s harshest sentence possible to children without considering their age, maturity and culpability. In Michigan, more than 350 individuals serving life sentences for crimes committed as children need to be resentenced. We also call on our legislature to reform Michigan’s sentencing laws to bring Michigan in line with constitutional and human rights standards as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court and the world over.”

Although the decision directly addresses only the cases of Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller who were condemned at 14 to spend their lives behind bars for their roles in separate murders in Arkansas and Alabama, the decision has far-reaching implications for states throughout the country, reasoning that mandatory imposition of life-without-parole sentences on children “contravenes Graham’s (and also Roper’s) foundational principle: that imposition of a State’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.”

The majority opinion continues: “By removing youth from the balance—by subjecting a juvenile to the same life-without-parole sentence applicable to an adult—these laws prohibit a sentencing authority from assessing whether the law’s harshest term of imprisonment proportionately punishes a juvenile offender.”

In November 2010, the ACLU and the ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit on behalf of nine Michigan citizens who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were children.

“Today’s decision vindicates our argument that sentencing children as if they are adults without taking into consideration their youthful status and lesser culpability is unconstitutional,” said Deborah LaBelle, a human rights attorney and director of the ACLU of Michigan’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative. “In America, we should not be locking children up and throwing away the key. The Supreme Court has created a path to justice for our plaintiffs and the hundreds of others who simply seek a second chance for the mistakes of their youth. “

Michigan currently incarcerates the second highest number of individuals serving life without parole sentences for crimes they committed before their 18th birthdays. Most of the juvenile offenders have served their time in adult prisons, and neither the juries that heard their cases nor the judges who imposed their punishments had any discretion to mete out lesser sentences.

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