In our last post, we began a discussion about prosecuting and sentencing defendants who are under the age of 18. While our criminal justice system is supposed to show leniency to children and teenagers (based on their capacity for reform and their still-developing sense of impulse control), this leniency is not uniform. Minors who commit murder and other serious crimes are often prosecuted and sentenced as though they are adults.
The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on this issue in 2012 and weighed in again earlier this year. In 2012, the Court held that laws mandating life without parole for juveniles convicted of homicide are unconstitutional. These mandatory life sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment, the Court ruled.
To be clear, imposing a life-without-parole sentence was not banned entirely. In individual cases, if warranted, courts can still impose a sentence of life without parole to a juvenile offender convicted of murder. But the Supreme Court noted that these sentences are only appropriate in the most extreme circumstances. Generally, however, states cannot pass or enforce laws that impose mandatory life-without-parole sentences in cases involving murder committed by minors.
In January of this year, The U.S. Supreme Court took its 2012 ruling even further by ordering it to be applied retroactively. This means that any juveniles convicted and sentenced to LWP before 2012 would potentially be eligible for a reduced sentence.
The New York Times recently profiled states attorneys and inmates who will be affected by the change. A prisoner in Pennsylvania, who is now 78, was sentenced for participating in a murder when he was just 15 years old. His time served is among the longest in the nation.
The public is often outraged to hear about young people committing the most serious of crimes – including murder. Retribution and severe punishment may even feel like an appropriate response. But if we, as a society, understand that minors are less culpable than adults and have a higher capacity for reform, we need to prosecute and sentence teen defendants accordingly.