SCOTUS: No Mandatory Life Sentences for Juveniles

Happy Independence Day.

No better gift for troubled teens than that of hope and freedom bestowed by the recent Supreme Court decision, forbidding juvenile offenders from being sentenced to life without parole. Florida has been an unfortunate leader in trying kids as adults, and in handing out long sentences meant to be punitive rather than rehabilitative.

Broward juvenile defense attorneys had been anxiously awaiting the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the legality of life prison terms for juveniles. eyeblue.jpg

Now, the court has made its decision: Juvenile crimes in Broward and throughout the country simply can’t be treated the same way as adult crimes. Mandatory life sentences for juveniles are now a thing of the past.

The issue was one that sharply divided the justices, who were split along theological lines. But you can’t judge a crime committed by a juvenile through the exact lens you would an adult. And simply trying them as adults doesn’t make them adults.

Now, this doesn’t mean that a juvenile CAN’T be sentenced to life in prison for murders that are considered especially heinous. But what this ruling does is say that sentence can’t be imposed as a minimum mandatory, as it can for adults.

This decision is in line with other rulings the court has recently made involving juvenile offenders. Those include taking the death penalty off the table for juveniles.

The four conservative justices, in expressing their dissent, argued that minimum mandatory sentences for certain crimes were appropriate. The example given was the possibility of someone just a few months shy of 18 who guns down dozens of students and teachers or bombs a crowded shopping mall.

However, first of all, crimes such as those are so rare in their occurrence that it would seem unwise to set wide-reaching legal precedent based on the slim chance of their occurrence. Secondly, there is nothing about this decision that bars a teen from being handed a life without parole sentence. It merely states that it can’t be mandatory.

Prior to this decision, the federal government, as well as 26 states, had allowed mandatory life sentences for certain types of murder to be applied to juveniles as young as 14 years-old.

In fact, it was one of these cases that sparked the ruling. In that situation, two 14-year-olds were convicted and sentenced to life without parole in the robbery and murder of a store clerk in Arkansas. The case is Miller v. Alabama. Only one of the teens actually fired the fatal shot. However, Arkansas law, similar to Florida’s, contends that if someone is killed in the commission of a felony to which you are a party, you can be held responsible for their murder.

In an encouraging side note, Justices Breyer and Sotomayor said that they would have taken it a step further and removed the possibility that a juvenile who did not actually commit the murder could be given a life sentence at all. While that was not the issue before the court at this time, it gives us some insight for the discussion that may be had when a case like that does ultimately and inevitably make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If you are facing criminal charges in Broward or Palm Beach counties, contact the Law Offices of Leifert & Leifert, a Partnership of Former Prosecutors, for a free consultation to discuss your rights. Call 1.888.5.DEFEND.

Additional Resources:
Court bars mandatory life without parole for kids, By Jesse J. Holland, Associated Press

More Blog Entries:
Fort Lauderdale Homicide Watch: Murder Can’t be Proven in Hazing Case, May 3, 2012, Broward Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog

Contact Information