US judges will no longer be able to hand out mandatory sentences of life behind bars with no chance of parole to children following a supreme court ruling handed down Monday.
In a 5-4 vote, justices threw out America’s ability to send juveniles to prison without a hope of ever being released, stating that it was unconstitutional.
However, courts still have discretionary powers to hand out the tough sentence in rare individual cases, a concession that tempered the delight of those who have long campaigned for a change in the law.
“It is a qualified victory,” Alison Parker, director of US programmes at Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian.
“We are very encouraged that the ruling recognises the completely different status between children and adults in front of the law. But it did not go far enough because it did recognise that the sentence could be used in rare cases.”
Parker said that at present, about 2,500 inmates in US prisons are languishing under life-without-parole sentences handed to them as children.
Of those, around 85% are there through mandatory sentencing powers. As such, the new ruling could lead to the re-sentencing of thousands of juveniles who committed crimes before their 18th birthday.
The case brought to the supreme court related to two boys, Evan Miller and Kuntrell Jackson, both of whom were convicted aged 14. Miller was convicted of killing a man in Alabama, while Jackson was an accomplice in an Arkansas robbery that ended in murder.
Despite their youth, the charge of capital murder held a mandatory sentence of life without parole, giving the judge no option than to order that they die behind bars.
In an amicus brief filed to the supreme court on behalf of both children, 26 legal and human rights groups argued that the practice of locking up children and throwing away the key is inhumane and unconstitutional. They noted that the US is the only country in the world to hand down sentences of life without parole to children.
“There is a clear international consensus against sentencing a juvenile offender to die in prison, and of equal importance, the United States is party to human rights treaties that have been interpreted to prohibit life sentences for juvenile offenders,” the amicus brief argued.
Announcing the supreme court ruling on Monday, justice Elena Kagan wrote: “The eighth amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for young offenders.”
The supreme court’s 5-4 decision is in line with similar rulings it has made on issues such as prohibiting death penalties for children and banning life with without parole for juveniles convicted of crimes not involving killing.
Responding to Monday’s announcement, Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer for Jackson and Miller, said: “This is an important win for children. The court took a significant step forward by recognising the fundamental unfairness of mandatory death-in-prison sentences that don’t allow sentencers to consider the unique status of children and their potential for change.
“The court has recognised that children need additional attention and protection in the criminal justice system.”
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