Mandatory Life Without Parole for Juvenile Offenders Struck Down

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Mandatory Life without parole for juvenile offenders is cruel and unusual punishment.

The United States Supreme Court decided recently that mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth amendment to the Constitution.   A few years earlier, the court reached the same conclusion about capital punishment for juvenile offenders.   The court recognized what parents and teachers and clergy knew all along:  that juveniles can’t and don’t think like adults.  They have no appreciation for consequences of particular actions, and are incapable of thinking broadly about their behaviors. (Those who defend accused citizens on a regular basis would argue that many adults are incapable of thinking broadly about their behaviors as well, but that is a topic for another day.)

The unanswered question that still lingers is whether the court’s ruling is retroactive. Logically and practically speaking, if a punishment is cruel and unusual under the eighth amendment today, it should be considered to have been so in the past.  Teenagers who were sentenced to life without parole ought to have their cases reviewed to determine whether they should receive a term of years, or even whether they should be released. There are many judges who would have rendered a sentence other that life without parole had they been given the option.  Many judges  now would re-evaluate a person’s circumstances and determine that a term of years would be a  more appropriate sentence.  There are some cases that cry out of the release of a teenager who has served twenty years in prison already.  For those who embrace the concept of restorative justice, reconciliation between the offending teenager and the family of the their victim is now legally possible.  There are documented cases of victim’s families who want to see a different, and more humane,  sentence for the juvenile offender.

Legally speaking, however, the question of retroactivity is not so simple.  It is likely that this issue will once again be before the Supreme Court as prosecutors rally against retroactive application of the case striking down mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders.