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Supreme Court rules life without parole for juveniles unconstitutional

The U.S. Supreme Court building
U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders violates the Constitution's Eighth Amendment (the ban on cruel and unusual punishment).

The ruling has big ramifications on Michigan. The state has one of the highest populations of juvenile offenders serving life sentences---358 out of about 2,500 nationwide.

The ACLU sued the state of Michigan back in 2010. Their press release at the time said the United States is the only country in the world that sentences young people to life without the possibility of parole:

....and Michigan incarcerates the second highest number of people serving life sentences without parole for crimes committed when they were 17 years old or younger. Currently, there are 350 individuals serving such mandatory life sentences in Michigan.

In a5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court drew from two previous cases---one banning the death penalty for youth offenders and the other outlawing life without parole for juveniles in non-homicide cases.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, said that those previous cases establish that "chil­dren are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes. Their 'lack of maturity' and 'underdeveloped sense of responsibility'  lead to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking."

Kagan wrote that those principles extend to all juveniles, even those convicted of murder, and that mandatory life-sentence rules---like those in Michigan---prevent those meting out punishment from considering a juvenile’s “lessened culpability” and greater “capacity for change.”

To clarify, the decision does not make it impossible for judges to rule that juveniles serve life in prison without the possibility of parole. Rather, the ruling affects states' sentencing guidelines, declaring it unconstitutional for states to require the punishment for certain crimes. In his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Samuel Alito wrote,

"It is true that, at least for now, the Court apparently permits a trial judge to make an individualized decision that a particular minor convicted of murder should be sentenced to life without parole..."

Rick Pluta from the Michigan Public Radio Network reports that, according to the ACLU, current juvenile lifers can either ask to be re-sentenced or granted a parole hearing. The decision will also likely require the Legislature to re-write Michigan’s juvenile sentencing standards.


Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed life sentences for crimes committed as juveniles; the Court's decision applies to life sentences without the possibility of parole. The post has been updated.


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