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Domestic News | June 28, 2012

High court strikes down mandatory life sentences


Evangelical group Prison Fellowship applauds decision for giving young offenders a second chance

In this Feb. 11, 1998 file photo, Nathaniel Jamal Abraham, 12, of Pontiac, Mich., listens to his attorney in Juvenile court. Abraham committed murder at age 11. (AP Photo/Richard Sheinwald, File)

Kuntrell Jackson was with two friends when they attempted to rob a video store in 1999. One of the other boys pulled a sawed-off shotgun out of his sleeve and shot the store clerk point blank, killing her. Jackson never entered the store.

Evan Miller and a friend used a baseball bat to beat a neighbor they were attempting to buy drugs from before setting his trailer on fire, hoping to cover up the crime they had committed.

Both Jackson and Miller were only 14 when they were convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole.

Now, both boys will have the chance to receive a more lenient sentence.

In a 5-4 decision issued June 25, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for states to demand a life sentence without parole for juvenile offenders.

As of this past Monday, thousands of convicted murderers in 29 states have the opportunity to get their sentences reduced. Inmates have hope that they can be liberated from life imprisonment and go on to lead normal and productive lives apart from cells and guards.

While the ruling does not take life without parole off the table, it does require that judges carefully consider the situation of the convicted minor when assessing the appropriate sentence, Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said in an interview with the New York Times. Stevenson's nonprofit law firm in Alabama represented the defendants in the ruling.

"Today's decision requires the lower courts to conduct new sentencing hearings where judges will have to consider children's individual character and life circumstances, including age, as well as the circumstances of the crime," he said.

This ruling does not come as a surprise to most legal experts, as it is in line with the two most recent high court rulings involving juvenile offenders. A 2005 ruling eliminated the death penalty for minors, and a 2010 ruling removed life without parole for juveniles convicted of anything but murder.

Lawyers in the 29 affected states can now ask for a new sentence on behalf of their clients convicted of murder as minors. Stevenson said that inmates must request the hearings, and many of them do not have the necessary resources.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion, calling mandatory life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment that bans cruel and unusual punishment.

The problem with mandatory sentences, Kagan wrote, is that "every juvenile will receive the same sentence as every other - the 17-year-old and the 14-year-old, the shooter and the accomplice, the child from a stable household and the child from a chaotic and abusive one."

She went on to explain that mandatory life without parole for juveniles does not take hallmark features of adolescence into account, such as the inability to appreciate risks and consequences.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the dissenting opinion, saying that mandatory life sentences for juveniles could not be considered "unusual" because 2,000 juveniles are serving such sentences in 29 states. Federal cases also used mandatory sentencing guidelines.

"Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers but that is not our decision to make," said Roberts, who insisted sentencing guidelines should be left up to the states.

In a statement issued after the opinion was released, Justice Samuel Alito said the court's decision could pose greater risk to the public if violent offenders are allowed to re-enter mainstream life.

"Even a 17 1/2-year-old who sets off a bomb in a crowded mall or guns down a dozen students and teachers is a 'child,' he said, "and must be given a chance to persuade a judge to permit his release into society," he said.

Families of the victims also are concerned about the court's ruling.

Jessica Cooper, a prosecutor in Oakland County, Mich., said her office has been taking calls from "distressed" relatives of victims.

"Now they're going to start all over," Cooper said. "It's going to take years."

Many inmates age 16-67 who are now serving life sentences for crimes they committed as teens could not be happier about the news.

Kevin Boyd, a 34 -year old inmate, was 16 when his mother killed his father. Boyd gave her the keys to his father's apartment, was aware of her threats and was convicted of murder.

After he heard of the court's decision, Boyd said that he slept "with hope on my pillow for the first time in 15 years."

Pat Nolan, president of Prison Fellowship's public policy arm voiced his support for the court's decision, in a statement given to World on Campus.

"This Supreme Court decision does not require juvenile offenders to be released," he said. "It merely requires that their case will be considered again at a future point, so that their life can be examined for who they have become rather than for what they were as a teenager."

"You don't have to be a person of faith to know that transformation is possible - and desirable. Shouldn't we make every effort to help these teens redirect their lives so they can contribute to society?"

The Associated Press contributed to this report.