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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Will the Supreme Court end "life without parole" sentences for juvenile murderers?

Last year, the Supreme Court held in the case of Graham v. Florida, 2010 that sentencing defendants younger than 18 years of age to life with parole for "non-homicide" convictions violates the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.  Prior to this decision,  "non-homicide" offenders were being sentenced to die in prison for crimes committed when they were 13 and 14 years-old without the ability to demonstrate as Justice Brennan wrote, "maturity of judgment and self-recognition of human worth and potential."  The Supreme Court had previously prohibited imposing the death sentence on defendants younger than 18 in Roper v. Simmons, 2005.

So, what about juveniles with homicide convictions?

This term, the Supreme Court agreed to consider two more cases dealing with juvenile life without parole cases: Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama. The Court is now examining whether it should prohibit life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers as violative of the 8th and 14th Amendments. It is important to note that the Supreme Court is not considering making it illegal to sentence a juvenile who has committed murder to life in prison. At issue is whether these juveniles will at some point in their lives be able to attempt to demonstrate the qualities of reform that Justice Brennan spoke to in Graham.

We won't know for certain until next year but given the trend in the Court's recent decisions in the area, and the way that the majority of the States in the country handle this issue, it would be surprising if they do not.

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