by Jeremy Leaming
The Supreme Court provided a mixed response to Arizona’s harsh immigration law, which also included an odd take on state sovereignty by Justice Antonin Scalia in his concurring, dissenting opinion. The Court’s right-wing bloc also overturned Montana Supreme Court’s decision supporting common sense campaign finance regulation.
So the high court’s most progressive action likely came in its 5-4 opinion, Miller v. Alabama. That opinion held that mandatory life sentences without parole of juveniles violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Citing precedent set forth in the cases Roper v. Simmons and Graham v. Florida, Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, reiterated that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing. Because juveniles have diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform, we explained ‘they are less deserving of the most severe punishments.’”
Children, Kagan, continued have different maturity levels than adults, they are more vulnerable to all kinds of pressures, and finally the child’s character is just not developed yet. Kagan noted the Court’s precedents “rested not only on common sense – on what ‘any parent knows’ – but on science and social science as well.”
But mandatory sentencing prevents judges from considering the difference between adults and children, which not only doesn’t make much sense, but leads to sentences for children that are constitutionally suspect.
“Mandatory life without parole for juvenile precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features – among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences,” Kagan wrote in conclusion. “It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him – and from which he cannot usually extricate himself – no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial peer pressures may have affected him.”
The opinion dealt with the combined cases of Kuntrell Jackson and Evan Miller, both sentenced to life without parole at the ages of 14.
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit group that provides legal representation to some of the nation’s most vulnerable, such as juvenile offenders, including Jackson and Miller, and low-income people, lauded today’s opinion as one that “will affect hundreds of individuals whose sentences did not take their age or other mitigating factors into account.”
EJI Executive Director Bryan Stevenson said, the high court “took a significant step forward by recognizing 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.
For more analysis of these cases and the precedent undergirding them, see the ACSblog guest post by Kristin Henning.