Duly Noted

Mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences unconstitutional, Supreme Court rules

In a landmark decision that effectively strikes down Michigan’s sentencing scheme, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for children under 18 to be sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison without chance of parole. The 5-4 decision, written by Justice Elena Kagan, invalidates laws in 29 states, including Michigan, for violating the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“While rebuking the precise sentencing scheme used in Michigan to incarcerate children without the possibility of parole, the Supreme Court again recognized that children should be treated differently in the eyes of the law,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director. “The Court made clear that it is cruel to dole out the state’s harshest sentence possible to children without considering their age, maturity and culpability. In Michigan, more than 350 individuals serving life sentences for crimes committed as children need to be resentenced. We also call on our legislature to reform Michigan’s sentencing laws to bring Michigan in line with constitutional and human rights standards as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court...”

 Although the decision directly addresses only the cases of two specific 14-year-olds condemned to spend their lives behind bars for roles in separate murders in Arkansas and Alabama, the decision has far-reaching implications, reasoning that mandatory imposition of life-without-parole sentences on children “contravenes Graham’s (and also Roper’s) foundational principle:...imposition of a State’s most severe penalties on juvenile offenders cannot proceed as though they were not children.”

The opinion continues: “By removing youth from the balance—by subjecting a juvenile to the same life-without-parole sentence applicable to an adult—these laws prohibit a sentencing authority from assessing whether the law’s harshest term of imprisonment proportionately punishes a juvenile offender.”

In Nov. 2010, the ACLU and the ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit on behalf of nine Michigan citizens sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were children. Michigan currently incarcerates the second highest number of such individuals.

“Today’s decision vindicates our argument that sentencing children as if they are adults without taking into consideration their youthful status and lesser culpability is unconstitutional,” said Deborah LaBelle, a human rights attorney and director of the ACLU of Michigan’s Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative.

To read the decision, go to: www.aclumich.org/sites/default/files/JuvenileLifeRuling.pdf
 
To read more about the ACLU’s lawsuit, go to: http://www.aclumich.org/issues/criminal-justice/2011-07/1587