WASHINGTON — The US Supreme Court on Monday agreed to review the ability of states to impose life prison sentences without parole in murder cases committed by juveniles.
The court, in the latest action on cases involving child criminal punishment, announced it would hear two cases involving homicides committed by boys who were 14 years old at the time of the crime.
One case involves Evan Miller of Alabama, who received a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole for a murder committed when he was 14.
In a similar case, Kuntrell Jackson of Arkansas is also serving a life sentence without parole, after being convicted as an accomplice to a robbery in which a shop attendant was killed.
According to lawyers for the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, which filed both cases, these youths are among 73 of the same age serving such sentences.
The lawyers said Miller "was sentenced under a statute that made a life-without-parole sentence mandatory, precluding any consideration of his age or other mitigating circumstances which would call for a sentence of less than lifelong incarceration."
In the Arkansas case, the teenager was also sentenced under a mandatory state law, which the defense lawyers claim is "cruel and unusual punishment" barred by the US constitution.
"Internationally, the United States is the only country in the world where death-in-prison sentences have been imposed on young adolescents," the defense lawyers said in their brief.
"By every measure deemed relevant... children under 15 are a distinct and distinctly less culpable class as compared with older juveniles. Moreover, national statistics demonstrate that children 14 or younger are particularly rarely sentenced to die in prison."
The decision to hear the two cases marks the latest foray into punishment for juveniles by the Supreme Court, which barred the death penalty in 2005 for those who are minors when they commit the crime and last year ended life sentences without parole for minors convicted of non-murder crimes.
The two states argue that the top court has in the past upheld life sentences for murder in youth cases and that both cases were adequately reviewed at the state level to impose punishment in the criminal, instead of the juvenile courts.