In a ruling overshadowed by its announcement of its decision on Arizona's immigration law, a divided Supreme Court on Monday said states may not impose mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole on juvenile murderers. While not as far reaching as the Arizona case, the ruling deserves widespread notice. It wisely reaffirms the principle that the justice system should take age and other factors into consideration when sentencing children convicted of the most heinous crimes.
The 5-4 ruling said such mandatory sentences contravene the constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. The court's most liberal members - Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan- were joined by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, often the court's swing vote, in the majority. The ruling was based on legal precedent as well as the growing body of scientific evidence that shows that youngsters in many instances should be treated differently when punishment for crimes is determined. That did not sit well with the justices in the minority.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., members of the court's conservative bloc, united in dissent. They argued that while "science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers ... that is not our decision to make." That narrow viewpoint ignores judicial and societal trends. It also shows lack of compassion.
The majority cited two earlier high court rulings that limit punishment for young criminals as the basis of their opinion. The first, handed down in 2005, abolished the death sentence for those under 18 who are convicted of murder, The second, from 2010, ruled that life sentences without parole for youngsters who commit non-murder crimes were unconstitutional. Monday's decision logically extends the 2010 ban to cases that involve homicide.
Monday's ruling involved the cases of two 14-year-olds, one from Alabama, the other from Arkansas. Each was convicted of murder and subsequently sentenced to life in prison without parole as required by state law. The justices ruled that such a mandate, without consideration of outside factors, constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling invalidates mandatory life terms with no paroles for juvenile murderers in 28 states. The ruling, however, is not a get-out-of jail- free card for juveniles currently incarcerated for murder without chance of parole.
The ruling means that those individuals - perhaps 2,000 nationwide - now can ask for new sentencing or parole hearings if they were sentenced under mandatory sentencing laws. Monday's ruling does not set any prisoner free. It does not prevent judges from sentencing juveniles convicted of murder to life-long terms. It does require judges and juries, in the majority's words, "to consider the characteristics of a defendant and the details of his offense before sentencing."
A ban on life sentences without parole for children should remain the nation's goal. Future cases likely will decide if that will occur. For the moment, though, Monday's ruling provides a reasonable standard of justice for children that correctly balances the nature of the crime, the maturity of the individual at the time of his or her offense and the possibility that redemption and rehabilitation can take place with the passage of time.