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Locked up for life? Too cruel

The Supreme Court should hold that sentencing young murderers to life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment.

March 23, 2012
  • In a 2012 ruling, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's majority opinion noted that 18 is "the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood."
In a 2012 ruling, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's majority opinion noted… (Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty…)

Seven years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that offenders younger than 18 couldn't be sentenced to death, arguing that juveniles are generally less culpable than adults because they are less mature, more impulsive and more susceptible to peer pressure. By the same unassailable logic, the court should hold that sentencing young murderers to life without parole is cruel and unusual punishment.

Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson were both 14 when they committed their crimes. Miller and a 16-year-old friend beat a neighbor and set fire to his house in Alabama, leading to the neighbor's death by smoke inhalation. Jackson and two friends tried to rob a video store in Arkansas, and a store clerk was shot to death. Even though he didn't pull the trigger, Jackson was convicted of felony murder. Both young men were sentenced to life without parole, a sentence that can be imposed on 14-year-olds in 38 states, including California, and under federal law.

The court should use these cases to declare that no one younger than 18 should be sentenced to life in prison without parole. That would be consistent not only with its 2005 ruling outlawing the death penalty for juveniles but also with a 2010 decision that minors convicted of crimes other than murder couldn't be sentenced to life without parole. In that ruling, JusticeAnthony M. Kennedy's opinion noted that 18 is "the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood."

But some justices indicated that they might draw a different line — for example, prohibiting life in prison without parole for those younger than 15 or 16. At Tuesday's oral argument, Kennedy and JusticeStephen G. Breyernoted that, though there are fewer than 80 14-year-old murderers serving life terms in prison without parole, the number swells to 2,300 if you look at all murderers under 18 who have received that sentence. In its decisions establishing 18 as the minimum age for the death penalty and life in prison without parole for non-homicide offenses, the court cited evidence that imposing those sentences on defendants 17 and younger was losing popular and political support and thus offended "evolving standards of decency." That may be less true of life imprisonment without parole for older teenagers.

Yet in outlawing the juvenile death penalty, the court did not simply rely on evidence of changing public attitudes. Kennedy's majority opinion also spoke of the court's duty to make its "independent judgment" about the constitutionality of particular punishments. Exercising that judgment, the court should rule that murderers 17 or under when they committed their crimes should at least be able to seek parole.

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